The new "30 hours free childcare" scheme comes into effect in England in September.
Parents can double their entitlement to free childcare and save thousands of pounds per year.
The scheme allows parents of three- and four-year-olds to claim an extra 15 hours a week in free care - an extension of the current universal entitlement of 15 hours per household.
This means you'll be able to claim up to 1140 hours of free childcare a year - instead of the current 570 hours cap.
To qualify for the scheme, parents must both be working and each earning at least £120 a week (on average) and not more than £100,000 each a year - although this between you is fine.
To apply, you have to register through the new Childcare Choices website - you can also use the handy calculator provided on the portal to find out if you can claim "Tax Free Childcare" on top, but note that you won't be able to claim Universal Credit or tax credits on the latter.
If you're interested in the scheme and want to find out more about how to claim 30 hours free care, the Mirror pulled out 10 things you should know - including the key deadlines.
1. Self-employed parents can claim it
Thirty hours free childcare is designed to be flexible for parents if, for example, they want to get back to work after the birth of a child or work part-time.
Therefore, it makes sense for the scheme to be open to all parents, including those who are self employed or on a zero hours contract.
You'll need to earn or expect to earn the equivalent of 16 hours at National Minimum or Living Wage over the coming three months to be eligible.
This equates to £120 a week (or £6,000 a year) for each parent over 25 years old or £112.80 a week (or £5,800 a year) for each parent between 21- and 24-years-old and £56 a week for apprentices in their first year.
2. It's for three- and four-year-olds only
The offer is for working families in England with three and four year old children only. Children are eligible from the term following their third birthday until they reach compulsory school age.
If you have an older child, you might be able to claim "Tax Free Childcare" instead - this is a form of tax relief for those with children up to the age of 12. For every 80p you pay your childcare provider, the government will pay in an extra 20p - up to £2,000 a year.
You can apply for both for different children at the same time.
3. Places will be limited - so act fast
One of the biggest concerns about the service is that it won't be accessible to many parents - because there aren't enough nurseries registered on the scheme.
It's also voluntary and with many care providers criticising the government's funding as "too low", some may choose to scrap it entirely.
According to the Pre-school Learning Alliance , a fifth of nurseries are worried the scheme will put them out of business due to inadequate funding. The website also adds that less than half of nurseries in the country plan to offer the service - while others will only offer it to a 'limited' number of families.
This means you'll have to act fast.
You can check if a childcare provider is approved or search for one in:
4. You'll need an eligibility code - and the deadline is looming
To apply and claim the funding, you'll need to register for an account on the Childcare Choices website and complete the online form provided.
If you qualify, you'll be sent an eligibility code which you must take to your provider, along with your National Insurance number and child's date of birth. They will then give it to the local authority to 'validate', this will allow you to secure your place ahead of the new term.
If your child is three or four on 31 August 2017, you can apply now for September 2017 - but the application deadline is 31 August.
Be warned though, the system has experienced back to back issues since it first opened to applicants - with some claimants now locked out completely. The sooner you get your code the better.
If haven’t been able to complete your application and get your 30 hours free childcare code for technical reasons, you should contact Gov.uk on 0300 123 4097.
5. It's NOT valid for 52 weeks of the year
Parents should be aware that the scheme is only valid for 38 weeks a year - not the full 52 weeks. This is equivalent to school term times.
This means if you're not a teacher, you'll have to source additional help over the summer and out of term months.
It's also worth noting that you won't be able to:
- Have any time before 6am or after 8pm
- Claim more than 10 hours a day
- Use the funding at more than two childcare providers in one day
6. You'll need to reconfirm your eligibility every three months
Once you're registered for the scheme, you will need to reconfirm your eligibility every three months by logging into your Childcare Services account.
The government will send you a reminder text message or email ahead of the deadline. Failing to complete it could result in your care being withdrawn. If you're caught giving out false information about your eligibility, you could also be fined up to £3,000.
7. If you lose your job or no longer qualify you'll get a 'grace period'
If you no longer meet the eligibility criteria, your child’s 30-hour place will continue to be funded for a ‘grace period’. You should discuss this with your provider to find out what time frame you qualify for.
You will still be able to receive the universal 15 hours of free childcare for all three- and four-year-olds even if you are no longer eligible for the extended entitlement.
8. It's not quite as 'free' as you think
The government is pushing its 30 hours childcare scheme as 'free' for parents, however critics have warned that the nurseries will have to claw back the money somehow - because the actual funding they're receiving from the government is "too low".
According to the Pre-school.org, the government currently only covers the cost of four of every five children that take up funded places. A further fifth of childcare providers believe doubling the free care could force them out of business.
This is therefore likely to mean extra costs for parents to help the firms stay afloat - such as charges for 'extras' and or contributions.
According to the Coventry Telegraph one nursery in York (one of the pilot areas) will be adding a new charge for food, whereas previously this had been included in the overall cost.
"I'm introducing a charge, which is something that was never there beforehand," one nursery owner in York told Radio 4's Today programme. "I'm now going to introduce a funded hours charge, which includes the meals which we've been providing, in a lot of cases totally for free."
Another York nursery is asking parents to pay £5 per day as a voluntary contribution.
9. You have to wait until after your child turns three to qualify
If your child was born on August 31 you can start claiming from September 1 - which is great.
However, if your child's birthday is after this date - you won't be able to claim until the following January (or after).
That's because the rules state that you can only claim at the start of each new term, so if your child is not three by 31 August, you'll have to wait until the start of the next term to claim. Yes, this means you could lose out.
10. You won't be able to choose the exact 30 hours you want
As a result of the added pressures on childcare providers, you probably won't be able to use your '30 hours' as and when you want them.
Most nurseries will accept a maximum amount of hours you can use in a session (such as three funded hours in a morning session) so they can try and manage the chronic shortfall in funding. You can also only use a maximum of two providers in a day.
This is completely up to the nursery - and you will have to ask them for specific details.
The good news is that you can mix and match across up to 14 providers a week (maximum two a day).
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