What is ’30 hours free childcare’ and will it be available in Northern Ireland?

Following the Spring budget earlier this month there has been a lot of focus in the media on the Government’s plans to introduce 30 hours free childcare for children in their preschool year from September 2017.

To avoid any confusion, we are highlighting that this does not extend to Northern Ireland and parents here will not be able to avail of the offer – 30 hours free childcare will be available for families in England only.

What is ’30 hours free childcare’?

This September, eligible working parents of three and four year olds across England will be entitled to 30 hours per week of free childcare over no fewer than 38 weeks per year. This equates to 1140 hours per year, doubling the current allowance. The Government has said that it wants to ensure that parents are given the choice of a ‘stretched offer’ so that the free hours are available outside of term time, however, this will result in fewer hours being available over the course of a week.

Places may be offered by a range of providers including childminders, day nurseries, preschools or playgroups, schools and children’s centres.

While this is good news for many working parents, there have been some concerns raised within the sector regarding underfunding of these places. It has been suggested that this could lead to childcare providers having no choice but to charge for ‘extras’ or put up costs outside of the ‘free’ offer. There is also some concern that there will be insufficient capacity to meet the childcare needs of working families.

What is the situation in Northern Ireland?

In Northern Ireland, parents of all three and four year-olds can apply to receive 12.5 hours per week of free, also known as funded, preschool education. This allocation can only be taken over 2.5 hours per day, 5 days a week, during term time. Places are provided by nursery schools, primary schools with nursery units and some voluntary and private providers. The places cannot be provided by childminders.

These preschool places are provided by the Department of Education whose guidance stipulates that they are not to be regarded as childcare. Their primary purpose is to provide quality early years education to encourage children’s social, physical and mental development, while helping to prepare them for school.

The rigidity of this provision, and the limited hours provided, mean that it does not give the flexibility to parents that the system in England does. Parents in England can use the Government funded places as childcare to enable them to work, unlike parents in Northern Ireland.

Are there any plans to extend the ’30 hours free childcare’ to Northern Ireland?

Childcare matters are devolved and there are not currently any plans to increase the level of free preschool provision in Northern Ireland.

We would welcome a move within Northern Ireland that would give working parents access to additional hours of funded preschool education, and enhanced flexibility in how this provision can be accessed, so that it can be used as childcare. This would meet a number of objectives including supporting the early development of children and enabling parents to access and stay in work.

It would be important that appropriate funding is allocated to support childcare providers delivering provision.

For more information on free preschool places in Northern Ireland, please see our factsheet or call 028 9267 8200 for free advice.

You will also find information on the Department of Education website.