Help with childcare costs across the UK looks at the different help with childcare costs that is available across the UK.

evidence about childcare

Teacher and adorable children being creative with colorful pencils at kindergarten

The childcare support you can get in different parts of the UK varies, although there are some common features. We have previously looked at help with childcare costs in England. That includes tax-free childcare and Universal Credit or tax credits which are available across the UK. England also offers subsidised childcare to parents of three and four year olds and disadvantaged two year olds and there are similar policies in Wales. Since August 2021, Scotland has offered subsidised childcare for all three and four years olds for the equivalent of 30 hours a week in term time [it can be spread across the whole year] whereas in England and Wales only some working parents are eligible for this.

Other support available across the UK include the Flexible Support Fund (FSF) from the Jobcentre Plus, which is allocated at the discretion of Jobcentre advisers. The FSF is available to people on benefits and can support anyone eligible for Work Preparation Support, such as lone parents, partners and carers. Advisers may also be able to use the FSF to support other unemployed people they are working with in certain circumstances. In Northern Ireland, it is known as the Adviser Discretionary Fund and has slightly different rules.

When it comes to availability of childcare, according to Coram Family and Childcare, must 59 per cent of local authorities in England have enough childcare (‘in all areas’) available for parents working full time, with care for 12 to 14 year olds much lower [13 per cent] and disabled children [21 per cent]. The availability of childcare for pre-school children has fallen in the last year, although there has been an increased provision for parents working atypical hours and families living in rural areas. In Scotland, there has been an increase in childcare sufficiency for some groups, but a decrease for children aged under two, five to 11 year olds after school and families living in rural areas. And in Wales, there have been substantial reductions in childcare sufficiency for most groups, except 12 to 14 year olds after school which has the same provision as last year.


In Scotland, families can also access a range of Scottish government policies, some of which are still being rolled out. The Child Poverty Action Group says that the combined value of these policies will reduce the net cost of bringing up a child by up to 31 per cent (nearly £24,000) for low-income families once all announced policies are in place.

Parents are entitled to certain means-tested benefits or tax credits who have children under six may be eligible for the Scottish Child Payment. There are plans to extend this to children under 16 whose families are on eligible benefits by the end of 2022, which says the CPAG, will make “a significant difference” to the ability of parents on low incomes to afford the cost of raising a child. Its value doubled to £20 a week from April 2022. The CPAG says the payment, once fully rolled out, will bring in a total of £16,700 over 16 years.

A second benefit subjected to this broad means test is the best start grants paid three times between birth and a child starting school. The first of these, worth £606 for the first and £303 for the second child, replaces the Sure Start maternity grants of £500 paid for the first child only elsewhere in the UK. The other two grants, paid at around the age of three and when the child starts school, are each worth £252.50. Taking an average of the first two children, and subtracting the value of the UK maternity grants, in total this gives an additional £710 per child to Scottish families for children in their early years.

Other support to children in low-income families include the extension of free school meals. What’s more, in Scotland, average childcare costs are lower than elsewhere in the UK, according to the annual survey carried out by Coram Family and Childcare. It puts the cost of full time nursery care [50 hours a week] for three and four year olds at £85.03 a week, compared to £145.70 a week in 2020. This is largely due to the costs charged by providers in Scotland not having risen as quickly as in England as well as the 30-hours scheme. In England full-time childcare for three and four year olds under the 30-hour scheme is £105.76 and in Wales it is £98.58, says Coram and Family Childcare.

In Scotland, there is also additional support for parents who are students such as  the Lone Parent Childcare Grant and discretionary childcare funds for all students with formal registered childcare expenses as well as the Scottish Child Payment.

Scotland has been at the centre of controversy over the UK Government’s plans to reduce the number of staff to children in English nurseries. The UK Government cites Scottish ratios to justify its plans, but critics say a key difference between the two systems is that all staff are highly qualified in Scotland and the monitoring of practice differs. Every Scottish childcare setting requires a lead practitioner who is qualified to degree level and acts as a manager or deputy, with the move to degree-led workforce beginning in 2006. Entry level workers are also required to have a Scottish Qualifications Authority qualification that is the equivalent to Level 2 NVQ in England.

Every practitioner is also responsible for undertaking continuous professional development each year and monitoring of adherence to codes of practice is strict.


As in England, some working parents of three- and four-year-olds in Wales can get a maximum of 30 hours a week of early education and childcare for 48 weeks of the year. The entitlement is also available to tertiary students.

Wales also has its Flying Start programme, an Early Years initiative for families with children under four who live in some of the most disadvantaged areas of Wales. The programme comprises four elements, including free part-time childcare for two and three-year-olds (up to 12.5 hours a week).   Undergraduate student parents can get a childcare grant.

Northern Ireland  

There is currently no Northern Ireland government-funded programme for childcare for those aged under three.

The Department of Education sponsors a Pre-School Education Programme (PSEP), which funds “one year of non-compulsory pre-school education”. This is distinguished from childcare, such as childminders, that enable parents to access work, education or training with the emphasis being on education.

Under this programme, most pre-schools in Northern Ireland offer part-time places of 2.5 hours a day or 12.5 hours a week, although some offer full-time places of 4.5 hours a day or 22.5 hours per week. This is delivered according to set hours during term time.

Full-time undergraduate students with children under 15, or under 17 if the child has special educational needs, may be eligible for a Childcare Grant towards their childcare costs. The Parents’ Learning Allowance is additional funding for eligible full-time students with children that can be used for everyday costs of study, such as books. Young parents aged between 16 and 20 who are studying at a further education college can apply to the Care to Learn scheme for help with childcare costs.

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