Early years and pre school education

Before they are legally required to start education at age five, many children will attend a pre-school or early years provider of education, such as a nursery, pre-school, playgroup, children's centre or childminder. Local authorities are under a duty to ensure that enough childcare is provided to meet the needs of working parents (and carers) in their area (i). These early-years providers are expected to support and promote children's development and skills, in ways that are appropriate to the child's age, and they are inspected by Ofsted to ensure that children are being assisted to meet specified learning goals which will prepare them for going to school.(ii)


How can I find out about early years provision in my area?

There is a local Family Information Service in every English local authority area. They can provide you with information about local childcare provision and services. You can find out about your local Family Information service from the Family and Childcare Trust.


What free pre-school education is available?

All children aged 3 or 4 can be provided with up to 15 hours per week of free pre-school education. Some two-year-olds will also be eligible for 15 hours of free pre-school education, but only if they fall within one of the special categories (see further below). This free education time can be provided by nurseries, pre-schools, playgroups, children's centres or childminders.

There is a legal duty on local authorities to secure this 15 hours of free early years provision for all eligible children children(iii). However, the various providers of early years education are not legally obliged to provide this free education time, and not all do so. You can check with individual providers whether they offer free places, or with the local council which provides the funding for the free places, or with your local Family Information Service.


So how does this scheme work?

Children become eligible for this free provision on a particular date after their 3rd birthday (see below for the scheme for eligible two-year-olds). The dates they become eligible are:

  • 1st April, for children born between 1st January and 31st March;
  • 1st September, for children born between 1st April and 31st August; and
  • 1st January for children born between 1st September and 31st December.

This free pre-school education is provided for 15 hours per week, for 38 weeks per year, making a total of 570 hours per year. You can negotiate with the provider for the free place to be provided for a greater number of weeks per year, with a lower number of hours per week, so long as the total number of hours per year is still 570. However, you cannot negotiate provision of more than 15 hour per week over a lower number of weeks. If the child attends the pre-school place for more than 15 hours per week, you will need to pay for the additional hours.

You can negotiate with the service provider on the way the 15 hours free provision are arranged. For example, it could be provided for five hours a day, three days a week; or for three hours a day, five days a week; or it could be provided over just two days. However, no session should be shorter than two and a half hours, or longer than ten hours, and they should not start before 7am, or finish after 7pm.

You can also choose two different providers to deliver this service, if you want, provided the total does not exceed your allowance of hours, but you must make sure you inform both providers about this arrangement.


Will my 2 year old be eligible for free pre-school education?

If you are in receipt of one of the following benefits, your child will be eligible for 15 hours of free pre-school education from the age of 2:

  • Income Support
  • income-based Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA)
  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • support through part 6 of the Immigration and Asylum Act
  • the guaranteed element of State Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit (but not Working Tax Credit) and have an annual income not over £16,190
  • the Working Tax Credit 4-week run on (the payment you get when you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit)
  • Working Tax Credits and earn £16,190 a year or less

Your child will also be eligible if:

Children become eligible for this free provision on a particular date after their 2nd birthday. The dates they become eligible are:

  • 1st April, for children born between 1st January and 31st March;
  • 1st September, for children born between 1st April and 31st August; and
  • 1st January for children born between 1st September and 31st December.

What if I need a pre-school place for more than 15 hours per week?

If you require more than 15 hours per week pre-school care for the child you are raising, the provider will probably charge for the additional hours. However it may be that the local authority can assist you with these charges. You would need to discuss the circumstances with the child's social worker, if they have one, or with a social worker from the children's services department with responsibility for supporting you and the child.


Further information about early years education

Early years education and special needs
Find a nursery school place
Find your Family Information Service


(i) s. 6 Childcare Act 2006
(ii) DfE (2013) Early education and childcare - Statutory guidance for local authorities; Ofsted (2014) Early years; DfE (2014) Early years foundation stage profile return 2014
(iii) DfE (2012) Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities on the Delivery of Free Early Education for Three and Four Year Olds and Securing Sufficient Childcare DfE (2013) Early education and childcare: Statutory guidance for local authorities

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