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Durham County Council

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Nursery and pre-school education


All three and four year olds and some two year olds in England are entitled to free, part-time early learning, care and development.

What is available?

15 hours free early learning for 3 and 4 year olds

Services are available for up to two years, until children reach statutory school age. 

Children can currently attend on a part-time basis for 15 hours a week, for 38 weeks of the year. This can be taken flexibly over a minimum of two days, and a minimum of 2 and a half hours per day with up to two providers.

When does my child qualify?

  • child born between 1 April - 31 August: September term intake
  • child born between 1 September - 31 December: January term intake
  • child born between 1 January - 31 March: April term intake

Where can I access it?

  • our maintained nursery schools and nursery units
  • nurseries
  • pre-school playgroups
  • childminders

How do you apply?

Visit the Families Information Service website to search for free early years providers in your area and contact them direct to apply.

New from September 2017 - 30 Hours Free Childcare for 3 and 4 year olds

From September 2017, the Government will offer 30 hours of free childcare per week for parents of three and four year olds, to help them continue or take up employment. Guidance from the Department for Education states that you will need to meet the following criteria to be eligible:

  • You earn, or expect to earn, the equivalent to 16 hours at National Minimum or Living Wage (as a minimum) for the first three months following application.
    • This equates to £120 a week (or about £6,000 a year) for each parent over 25 years old or £112.80 a week (or about £5,800 a year) for each parent between 21 and 24 years old.
    • This applies whether you are in paid employment, self-employed or on zero hours contract.
  • Where one parent meets the income criteria above and the other is:
    • Unable to work because they are disabled, have caring responsibilities or have been assessed as having limited capability to work.
    • On maternity, paternity, shared parental or adoption leave, or if they are on statutory sick leave.
  • Where you are in a 'start-up period' (ie newly self-employed) you do not need to demonstrate that you meet the income criteria for 12 months.
  • If you are a non-European Economic Area (EEA) national, you must have recourse to public funds.

Who will not qualify?

You will not meet the criteria when:

  • Either parent has an income of more than £100,000.
  • Either parent is a non-EEA national and subject to immigration control (and has no recourse to public funds).

What happens if a parent loses eligibility?

  • You will receive a "grace period" - this means you will be able to keep your childcare for a short period.
  • Once the "grace period" has lapsed, you may be entitled to the universal 15 hour entitlement.

Are there any additional costs?

You may be charged by your childcare provider for lunches or for any additional hours of childcare needed. Please speak to your childcare provider for details. These additional charges are not covered by this scheme.

You can check whether you are eligible on the Childcare Choices.

If you are eligible for 30 hours you will be given an 11 digit eligibility code. You or your partner should take this code to your chosen childcare provider. You will also need to give them the National Insurance number of the person who registered online and your child's date of birth.

You will need to reconfirm your eligibility every three months but a reminder will be sent to you by HMRC by text and/or email.

Find out more about the 30 hours free childcare in our frequently asked questions document (PDF, 415kb).

Free early years Play and Learn sessions for 2 year olds

Some two year olds may be entitled to free early education up until the term after their third birthday at 'Play and Learn' sessions. This can take place at a nursery, playgroup or with a childminder. If you are eligible, your child could receive 15 hours a week (term time only), or 11 hours a week (50 weeks a year).

Is your child eligible?

Children are eligible if they:

  1. are from households where a parent is in receipt of any of the following benefits:
    • Income Support
    • Income-based Job Seekers' Allowance
    • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
    • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
    • the Guarantee element of the State Pension Credit
    • or Child Tax Credit, provided they have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190, as assessed by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC)
    • or are in receipt of Working Tax Credits (including those in receipt during the four-week period immediately after their employment ceases, or after they start to work fewer than 16 hours per week) with a household income of less than £16,190 as assessed by HMRC
  2. are looked after by their local authority
  3. have a current statement of special educational needs or an Education, Health and Care plan
  4. have left care through special guardianship or an adoption or residence order
  5. are in receipt of the Disability Living Allowance

When could your child start?

If you qualify, your child could take up their 'play and learn' sessions any time between the term after their 2nd birthday and the term after their 3rd birthday. 

Where can you access Play and Learn sessions? 

Visit the Families Information Service website to search for providers in your area.

How do you apply?

You can download an application form (PDF, 825kb) or contact us for a paper copy. Applications will not be considered until the beginning of the term that the child turns two.

More about Play and Learn sessions

Research shows children who go to good and outstanding nurseries, pre-schools and child minders make good progress with their language, physical and social development. When the time comes for school they settle in quickly and do well in their new class. Places are available in good quality settings so you can be confident that your child is receiving quality education and childcare helping them with their early learning through giving them new experiences. It will give you the chance to spend time with other family commitments, do some training or study or take a part-time job.

You can download a list of Frequently asked questions (PDF, 236kb) about free Play and Learn sessions for 2 year olds.