Who is eligible for the expanded childcare offering - and what are the caveats?

The scheme is due to be rolled out in three parts, with the first phase beginning on Monday

The government's new free childcare scheme came into force in England on Monday April 1, and means eligible families of children from nine months will be able to claim 15 hours of free childcare.

But a number of childcare providers say they don't have the spaces or staff to deliver the funded hours, and parents have raised concerns the scheme won't save them as much money as the government promised.

But what exactly is changing, who's eligible, and how can parents take advantage?

What is the new free childcare policy?

Currently, families who receive some form of additional government support - such as universal credit - get 15 hours per week free childcare for their two-year-olds.

From April 1, eligible families of children as young as nine months old in England are able to claim 30 hours of free childcare a week by September 2025 under the offer.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt first announced the free childcare scheme in his 2023 spring Budget.

The scheme is due to be rolled out in three parts, with the first phase beginning on Monday.

What about younger children?

At the moment there's no free childcare for children under the age of two.

But from September working parents will be entitled to 15 hours per week, rising to 30 hours in September 2025.

And for three and four-year-olds it will remain as it currently stands. That's a universal 15 hours a week for all parents, rising to 30 hours for those in working families.

So, what is an eligible 'working family'?

It's any parent who earns at least £1,976 across three months - which works out at 16 hours of living or minimum wage a week. And each parent in a household must earn under £100,000 a year to qualify.

Parents can sign up for the scheme on the gov.uk website.

You have to provide your own details, and the details of your partner if you live together. This has to be reconfirmed every three months.

But many nurseries say they have no space to offer the new free childcare policy. Credit: Pexels

Will parents really save money?

Many providers are having to hike prices specifically to pay for the funded places because of increases in overheads and wage costs.

Research from charity Pregnant Then Screwed revealed parents eligible for the new funded hours will still struggle to afford their childcare bill.

In a survey of parents, they found 62% of parents say childcare costs have increased in the last six months, while a quarter say the new funding will save them less than £90 a month.

They also found 22% of parents eligible for the new funding are still considering leaving their job or reducing their hours at work due to childcare costs.

What are the concerns over the scheme?

Labour have called all the scheme "a pledge without a plan" and a number of childcare providers have also expressed concerns.

Firstly, the free childcare can only be taken at limited providers.

Not all nurseries have signed up for the scheme, and there will be limited places at others.

Childcare providers are worried about rising wages for staff and the increasing cost of bills meaning they might even have to increase fees.

85% of providers say they plan to increase fees, and 86% said the upcoming increase in the national living wage for staff will have a negative impact on their finances.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said eligible parents must not lose out on childcare places. Credit: PA

June O'Sullivan, the CEO of childcare provider the London Early Years Foundation, says her nurseries won't be able to offer many extra places, and they've had to increase prices.

She added her organisation is "squeezed" because of historic "underfunding", and is therefore having to pass on extra costs to parents.

Data from Ofsted shows the number of childcare places fell by more than 1,000 from March to the end of last year.

Would Labour keep the scheme if they win the election?

Labour caused a stir on Tuesday when they refused to commit to keeping the scheme in place if they win the election.

Asked by BBC Newsnight whether Labour is planning to go back to the drawing board on the childcare expansion plan if they win the general election, Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson said the system “does require reform”.

Labour have expressed doubts about whether it will all work, and say the childcare system is "in disarray."

Ms Phillipson is calling on the chancellor to guarantee that eligible parents will not lose out on places as a result of the Conservatives’ “blotched” childcare pledge.

But the government say they're determined to see it implemented and called it the country's "biggest ever rollout of childcare".

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said this week she's "confident" the government will deliver the expansion of free childcare.

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