Consumer Rights: Here's a lesson in how to get free childcare

Schools are being encouraged to offer places for two-year-olds ... but will your youngster qualify?

Schools are being encouraged to take in two-year-olds to help make more childcare places available. That encouragement will include changes to legislation to make it easier for schools to offer places to the terrible twos.

As it stands all three- and four-year-olds in England are entitled to 15 hours of free early education each week for 38 weeks of the year. Once your child is three years old you can start claiming free early education from 1 September, 1 January or 1 April. Children can get their free early education at nursery schools, nurseries, children's centres, some playgroups and pre-school childminders. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own schemes. Your local authority anywhere in the UK will be able to give you details.

Some two-year-olds in England can also already qualify for free early education if their parents are getting certain welfare benefits or tax credits.

Most parents of two-year-olds however don't qualify for free places. If your child doesn't get free early education but you're in work you may be eligible for some help towards the costs of paying for it yourself. You may be able to get extra tax credits. Single parents who work 16 hours or more a week, and couples where both work 16 hours or more a week, or where one works and the other is entitled to certain benefits or is in hospital or prison, can get help with childcare costs. You could get up to £7 of every £10 you spend on childcare costs up to a maximum of £175 a week for one child and £300 a week for two or more.

If none of the above applies to you, your employer may step in and help. Many give staff childcare vouchers, arrange childcare for employees' children, provide a workplace nursery or even pay childcare fees direct or give employees cash.

Some parents still studying may also get help. If you're 20 or over and on a further education course you may get Discretionary Learner Support to pay for childcare. If you're in full-time higher education you can apply for a Childcare Grant to pay for children under 15, or under 17 if they have special needs. Care to Learn is another scheme for people under 20 caring for their own child. .

On top of all the existing help for parents, there are new rules from September 2014. From then more two-year-olds in England will be eligible for free early education. As well as the current rules, a child will then also be eligible if any of the following apply: if a parent gets Working Tax Credits and earns no more than £16,190 a year, they have a current statement of special educational needs (SEN) or an education, health and care plan, they get Disability Living Allowance, or the child left care through special guardianship or an adoption or residence order.

Many parents are eligible for help with childcare costs, others have to pay. Nursery fees have risen by nearly a third in the past three years and the average cost of a nursery place for a child aged two or over for 25 hours a week is now £107 – well outside the reach of many parents.

But often it's a lack of places that causes most difficulty. And that's what the Education Department is hoping to tackle with this week's announcement, writing to every council in England to suggest school nurseries should extend opening hours to allow parents to leave two-year-olds during the working day. Ministers reckon opening up the system will help provide tens of thousands more childcare places and encourage mothers to go back into part-time work.

The Government has given 49 primary schools a grant of up to £1,000 each to help establish the best way to educate and care for two-year-olds. The idea is that they will share their experiences and encourage more schools to follow suit. The money will pay for new buildings, resources, and staff training.

If it all works out, more places for more children may even push down fees for those for whom no financial help is available. But the Government shouldn't reckon without mums. They know best and many feel they're being put under pressure to get back to work at a time when it's better for them and their two-year-olds to be at home together - bonding.


Q: I'm planning to ask my girlfriend to marry me on Valentine's Day and my mum has given me her mother's engagement ring to give to my girlfriend. It's only worth about £300 but it's lovely and I know my mum wouldn't want it to go out of the family if my girlfriend and I broke up at some point. Am I entitled to ask for the ring back if something goes wrong? FT

A: In the normal course of events, a gift is a gift so your girlfriend would be entitled to keep the ring if the you split up. You will have to explain it isn't an outright gift and that you would expect her to return it if you split up. If she accepts it under those terms, she should give it back.

But if a split is acrimonious it could come down to one word against the other. You could become embroiled in the kind of argument where you claim you explained the situation but she claims the ring was an outright gift. It can be very difficult to resolve those situations, so you really do need the extra safeguard of drawing up a written agreement that says the ring will be returned to you if you split up.

Both should sign in front of a witness, date the agreement and each keep a copy. Keep it safe and hope you never need it. I hope you have a lovely Valentine's Day but it might be better not to have the ring conversation on the same day you pop the question!

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