Free early education for 3 and 4-year-olds

Find out how your child can access their free early education from the term after their third birthday.

What is free early education?

This is also known as free childcare, early learning or pre-school education. This allows children to play, learn and be supported by qualified Early Years professionals at a registered day nursery, pre-school playgroup or with a childminder.

15 hours per week free childcare for all 3 and 4 year olds

All children no matter their family circumstances are entitled to free early education (childcare) from the term after their third Birthday up until they start school full time.

The table below shows when your child will start their early education:

Child's 3rd birthday falls between these dates:  Term they can receive funded early learning:
1 September - 31 December Spring Term (January)
1 January - 31 March Summer Term (April)
1 April - 31 August Autumn Term (September)

Your child is entitled to a maximum of 15 hours of free early education (childcare), for up to 38 weeks of the school year, during term time.

How long can my child continue to receive free early education?

If your child already attends a day nursery, pre-school or playgroup or childminder, you can choose to keep them there until your child is of compulsory school age.

Compulsory school age is the beginning of the term after a child's fifth birthday.

Once a parent has accepted a full or part-time reception class place at a school, they no longer receive the early education funding (unless the place has been deferred.)

Can a setting charge for additional extras or top-up fees?

Childcare providers must not force you to pay for any goods or services, such as meals, optional extras, or additional hours of provision during your free funded sessions, as a condition of children accessing their free early education. Note: Settings can do so outside of your free entitlement.

If you think that the setting where your child claims is charging for extras as a condition of your child having an early education place at the setting, please phone the Suffolk Family Information Service on 0345 60 800 33 or email to: childcare.planning@suffolk.gov.uk so it can be investigated.

You will need to speak to your chosen childcare provider to arrange how you take your funded hours with them. This can depend on how they run their childcare provision and what space they have available.

These are examples of how you can take your funded hours:

  • 3 hours per day across five days (Monday to Friday) for 38 weeks a year.
  • 5 hours per day for three days a week for 38 weeks a year.
  • 6 hours a day for two days and 3 hours for the third day, for 38 weeks a year.

A session must not:

  • be longer than 10 hours per day
  • be shorter than 2 and a half hours per day
  • start before 7am or finish after 7pm

What is the Stretched Offer?

Childcare providers may be able to allow parents to “Stretch” their child’s 15 hour entitlement by taking fewer free hours a week, over more than 38 weeks of the year.

Not all settings are in a position to be able to offer this to parents due to staffing structure, availability of places, and restrictions on the use of their premises.

Parents must contact their setting directly to ask whether they are able to allow you to do this.

Can I split the free early education between two settings?

Yes, as long as the total combined number of hours claimed by the settings does not exceed the maximum (15 hours) the child is entitled to. Hours can be split between a maximum of:

  • 2 settings
  • 1 setting and a School Nursery Class (by prior agreement with the school only)

For further information:

  • Speak to your local pre-school playgroup, day nursery, childminder or the local primary school if it has a nursery class.
  • Search online for childcare providers that offer funded early education places for 3 & 4 year olds. Go to our Family Services Directory website and follow these steps:
    1. Enter your full postcode in the 'location' box field
    2. Click on the arrow from the ‘Family Service Directory’ box field to select ‘childcare’ and click ‘Search’.
    3. This will show you a list of childcare providers in your local area.
  • Contact the Suffolk Family Information Service on 0345 60 800 33.

What happens next?

You will need to arrange to visit the childcare providers you are considering and talk to them to see what they can offer you and when. The setting will let you know when your child can start and will give you a Parent/Carer Authorisation Form (PAF3 of PAF 4) for you to complete. They also need to see proof of your child's date of birth.

Further information

Department of Education's Funded Early Education Choice Framework explaining how children aged 2, 3 and 4 can take up a funded early education place, and what information is available to parents.

Early Years Pupil Premium (EYPP)

Read information about the Early Years Pupil Premium (EYPP)

Extended 15 hours free childcare entitlement for working parents of 3 and 4 year olds 

From September 2017, working families may be eligible for up to 30 hours of free childcare for their 3 or 4 year old. For details and to find out if you are eligible please see our 'Childcare for working parents' page.