What is 30 hours free childcare?

You many have heard in the news about Government plans to introduce 30 hours of free childcare for preschool children in England. We have received a number of calls from parents about what this free entitlement actually entails and whether it will extend to Northern Ireland.

What is the 30-hour childcare plan?
From September 2016 the preschool children of working parents in England will be able to claim 30 hours of free childcare. These places will be provided by day nurseries, preschools or playgroups, independent schools, children’s centres and maintained nursery schools.

How is this different from the existing entitlement?
Currently, each preschool child in England is entitled to receive a maximum of 15 hours per week, over no fewer than 38 weeks per year (a maximum of 570 hours per year). The entitlement can be taken over a minimum of 2.5 hours per day up to no more than 10 hours per day, between the hours of 7am and 7pm. Preschool education places are open to all three and four-year-olds, and some two-year-olds.

Essentially, Government is doubling the existing provision.

Will the additional free places be available in Northern Ireland?
In short, no. Northern Ireland offers its own free early education scheme for children in their preschool year. There is currently no free childcare available in Northern Ireland. All three and four year olds can apply to receive 12.5 hours per week of free preschool education. These can be taken as 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, but cannot be delivered by childminders. There are no plans to increase the level of free preschool provision in Northern Ireland.

Is it correct to call the free entitlement ‘childcare’?
Although much of the media coverage and publicity around the expansion of free places refers to the entitlement as ‘childcare’, the places are defined as early education places. Their primary purpose is to provide quality early years education to encourage children’s social, physical and mental development while also helping them to prepare for school. Childcare, by definition, is the provision of care and supervision of children while parents are working or studying. Good quality childcare can benefit children’s development, but a distinction must be drawn between the free preschool places and a typical childcare place.

The free places provided in Northern Ireland are provided through the Department of Education, and its guidance to parents stipulates that the places are not to be regarded as childcare. In England, however, councils are open to referring to the places as childcare, and, due to the increased flexibility parents have in how they use the places, the English system can be used by parents as ‘childcare’. For example, in England parents can take 10 hours in one day to facilitate working. In Northern Ireland the 12.5 hours per week must be taken in 2.5 hour per day blocks and cannot be used flexibly to meet the needs of parents.

Extending the number of places in England from 15 hours to 30 hours, if the same flexibility is applied, will support parents to access work. In Northern Ireland it is not that straightforward; the policy perception of preschool places would need to be addressed and the system would need to become more flexible and widely available if it is to be used by parents as childcare.

For more information on free preschool places in Northern Ireland, please see our factsheet.