When does free education start?
Your little one can get 15 hours a week of free education if you want to take it up. Here’s what they’re entitled to and how to choose the right nursery or pre-school.
At a glance
- All three-year-olds can get 15 hours of free education a week
- Make sure you visit before signing up to see what’s on offer and to get a feel for whether it will suit your little one
- Check out OFSTED reports for each place you visit to see how they compare
Once your little one turns three, their free education can start – but it’s not compulsory yet so you don’t have to take up the offer.
All three-year-olds are entitled to 15 hours a week of education 38 weeks a year. It can be in the nursery class of a school, at a pre-school, playgroup, day nursery or children’s centre, a Sure Start centre or other settings (including some childminders) depending on what your local council provides. See Sure Start for details of what’s available in your area.
When can they start?
There are three slots in the year when children are enrolled: September 1, January 1 and April 1. Your child can start in the first slot after their third birthday (for example, if they turn three on February 6, they can start on April 1).
Usually in a pre-school or nursery class you will be given a morning or afternoon place.
Entitlement with certain benefits
If you’re on the following benefits, your little one will be eligible for their 15 hours from the age of two: Income Support, Jobseeker’s Allowance, income-related Employment and Support Allowance, support through part 6 of the Immigration and Asylum Act, Child Tax Credit and have an annual income not over £16,190 or working Tax Credit 4-week run on. Children looked after by a local council are also entitled to a place from two.
From September 2014, you’ll also be entitled from the age of two if you get Working Tax Credits and earn no more than £16,190 a year, or your child has one of the following; a statement of Special Educational Needs or an education, health and care plan, Disability Living Allowance or they've left care through special guardianship or an adoption or residence order. See Government guidelines on free early education for details or check your eligibility with your council.
Should I go for it?
You don’t have to. Education doesn't become compulsory until the term after they turn five (though most kids end up starting school aged four).
You know what will suit your child best, but there is research showing that good quality early years education can really help their social, language and brain development.
Working parents may find the part-time hours of school classes limiting - although if you combine it with a childminder/au pair/nanny it can work. Some nursery schools and children’s centres offer paid-for time to extend the day.
How do I choose?
Unlike schools, which differ in outlook but basically offer the same kind of education, pre-schools come in all shapes and sizes, and have radically different approaches. They all have to follow a loose curriculum called the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework – but how they do it is up to them.
The good news is that with so many choices available, you should find something to suit your child’s personality and preferences.
Many nurseries attached to schools have more of a ‘school’ feel with quite a structured day (though not all), whereas some pre-schools and children’s centres have more ‘free play’; some offer unlimited outside time which excites lots of kids.
Some parents like the idea of the school’s nursery class because it gives their child a chance to meet future classmates. However, it’s worth knowing that it won’t put you higher up the list when it comes to school admissions. By law, schools aren't allowed to prioritise kids already in their nursery classes.
There’s no substitute for visiting what’s on offer as you’ll get a feel for whether it will suit your little one. Contact your local council for a list of providers. Each area will have a slightly different admissions policy, but it’s normally decided by how nearby you live.
Before you decide, you could check the OFSTED report for each place you visit at; it’s also worth talking to parents at drop-off or pick-up time to see how they rate their choice.
Find out how best to prepare your little one for their first day at nursery/pre-school and how to help them settle in here.