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Wednesday, 3 October 2023

Free early education: where your child can learn

Learning and playing with other children in a safe, structured environment will help your child’s development, giving them a head start when they begin school. There are a number of options available up to the age of five.

Free early education for three and four year olds

All three and four year olds are entitled to 15 hours of free early education for 38 weeks of the year. This applies until they reach compulsory school age (the term following their fifth birthday). Free early education places are available at a range of early years settings including nursery schools and classes, children's centres, day nurseries, playgroups and pre-school and childminders.

For more information about free early education in your area, contact your Family Information Service (FIS). FIS provides information, advice and assistance to parents, carers and professionals on the range of children, family and young people's services available within their area.

Find an early learning place near you

Finding out about the range of services on offer will help you decide what best suits you and your child's needs. Early learning is available through:

  • nursery classes, nursery schools and day nurseries
  • Sure Start Children's Centres
  • preschool playgroups
  • reception classes
  • accredited childminders who are part of an approved network

To find out what's available in your area, contact your local FIS.

Asking questions and checking childcare quality

Knowing what questions to ask childcare providers and what to look for is important when choosing a setting for your child. You can also get useful information about most childcare providers from Ofsted, which is in charge of regulating childcare standards.

Nursery classes, nursery schools and day nurseries

Nursery classes and schools fall into two groups - state and private. Most day nurseries are privately run.

Most nurseries:

  • will take your child between the ages of three and five, although many day nurseries take younger children
  • open throughout the school year, although some private day nurseries open during the school holidays
  • operate a core day of 9.00 am to 3.30 pm, although many nurseries offer longer days
  • offer five half-day sessions, although some types of nursery will offer part-time or full-time places depending on your needs

Nursery schools and classes have a minimum ratio of two adults to 20 to 26 children. One must be a qualified teacher, the other a qualified nursery assistant.

Day nurseries have more intensive staffing ratios and different rules on qualifications of staff depending on the ages of children being cared for.

Sure Start Children's Centres

Children's centres can provide early learning and full daycare for children under five. They also provide a number of useful services for both you and your child all under one roof, including:

  • child and family health services, ranging from health visitor services to breastfeeding support
  • most offer high quality childcare and early learning - if your centre doesn’t offer childcare then they can help advise on local childcare options
  • classes for parents, drop-in sessions and access to specialist services for families like speech therapy, healthy eating advice and legal advice
  • help for you to find work or training opportunities, using links to local Jobcentre Plus offices and training providers

Children’s centres are open to all parents and children and many of the services are free. You will have to pay for childcare but support is available through tax credits. The services available to you will depend on your local area.

Preschool playgroups

Playgroups are often non-profit-making. They may be run by volunteers, often including parents, and provide play time and often early education to under fives.

Most playgroups:

  • will take your child between the ages of three and five, although some will take two year olds
  • open throughout the school year
  • usually offer half-day sessions, although some are not always open all week, and others may be able to provide you with longer hours
  • provide places for between 10 and 20 children - there must be one adult for every eight children and at least half of the adults must be qualified leaders or assistants

Reception classes

Some primary schools are able to admit children under five into a reception class.

Reception classes:

  • take children aged four and five
  • open throughout the school year
  • may take your child for half-day sessions at first, and then build up to full-time attendance
  • are limited by law to up to 30 children - most have assistants


Childminders usually look after children in their own home. Those offering free early learning places for three and four year olds should be registered by Ofsted and accredited as part of a local authority quality assurance network.

All childminders who care for children under eight agree to meet certain quality standards and must be registered, checked and inspected regularly to make sure they are suitable to look after children.


  • look after your child from a few months old up to the age of five
  • can often be flexible about the days and times they work - every childminder is different so you will have to discuss this with them
  • can look after up to six children under eight years old, although no more than three must be aged under five

Some childminders will also look after school age children after school and in the holidays.

Your child's learning and how they’ll be cared for

All childcare providers caring for children up to five years old must meet standards for learning and care called the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

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