Free early learning for three and four year olds


All three and four year olds are entitled to 15 hours a week of free early years education for 38 weeks of the year. This page explains how you work out when your child qualifies for a free place, where your child can learn and how you go about securing your child's place. Working families from September 2017 may also be entitled to a further 15 hours of free early years education

When does my child qualify for a universal free place?

Free early years education is available from the term after your child turns three. This finishes at the end of the term in which your child turns five. You can use the table below to work out when your child’s free place will start and end.

Child's birth dateThey are eligible for a free place from:Their free place ends:
1st January and 31st March 1st April following their third birthday At the end of the spring school term as your child turns five
1st April and 31st August 1st September following their third birthday At the end of the summer school term as your child turns five
1st September and 31st December 1st January following their third birthday At the end of the autumn school term as your child turns five


Where and when can my child learn for free? 

Free places are available at our eight Council-run nursery schools, and at the nurseries attached to primary schools. Most of these offer just the 15 hours of learning a week, so if you need more childcare you would have to pay for this elsewhere. Usually, your child would start in September and would attend the nursery for three hours each morning or afternoon, five days a week.

Free places may also be available at early years childcare providers such as:

  • day nurseries
  • pre-school playgroups
  • childminders

You can contact these providers directly to check if they offer free places, or contact the Families Information Service to find out all the providers in the city that offer free nursery places.

Where day nurseries, pre-school playgroups and childminders do offer free places, they will usually allow children to start in January, April and September. They are likely to be flexible about how you divide your child’s free 15 hours across the week. You may be able to leave your child for up to six hours a day, spread over a fewer number of days a week. Talk to the provider you want to use about what they can offer you.

How do I get a free place for my child?

If you’re already using childcare then you might want to check if your current provider offers free nursery places.

If you want to find a new provider that offers free places, you can contact the Families Information Service.

Make sure your provider knows that you want to use your free 15 hours a week. Arrange with them when you’ll be able to use the free place. You will need to sign a contract that says what you’ve agreed.

If you want to use a nursery school or a nursery attached to a primary school, you will need to contact the school directly and ask for a nursery application form. Fill it in and return it to them and the school will let you know if you’ve got a nursery place before the new term starts.

It’s always a good idea to start looking early. There’s no reason you can’t apply in advance of your child’s third birthday, though applying early isn’t a guarantee that you will get a place.

Missing out on a free place

You might miss out on a free early years education place if…

  • your child is not registered with an early years provider at the start of the term after your child turns three. It’s likely you will not be able to claim the free hours for that term.
  • you have not signed a contract with the provider to confirm your child will be attending by the start of the term after your child turns three.
  • the provider you want to use is not able to provide free childcare.

If you move to a new provider halfway through a term, you will have to pay for their place until the next term starts.

Are you struggling to find childcare?

Sometimes it is difficult to find appropriate childcare due to your families needs. If that is the case, we can help you so get in touch.  

What if I need more than 15 hours of childcare a week?

If you want more than 15 hours of childcare a week then you’ll have to pay for the extra hours. Talk to the nursery or provider that you’re using to check how and what they would charge for the extra hours. 

You may also want to visit  This government webpage outlines a range of funding options which you may be entitled to. It also allows parents to sign up for updates and notifications on tax free childcare as well as other government childcare cost schemes. 

Are these 'free' places totally free?

If you are just using the 15 hours of free early education, the only other thing you might have to pay for is your child’s lunch. You would need to talk to the early years provider you want to use about what options they offer and what the possible cost might be. Any extras should be agreed before your child takes up the place, and we would recommend that these extras are confirmed in writing.

If you’re paying for extra childcare then your provider might make you pay a registration or administration fee as well as paying for lunch.

What should I do if I think I’m being charged for my free place?

Always speak to your provider first. Try to get them to explain the charges they are making.

If you’re still worried, contact the Families Information Service. The FIS team will need to know:

  • what you agreed with the provider in your contract
  • what you are being charged – the team may need to see a copy of an invoice
  • how many hours a week your child spends with that provider.

Don't forget that working families may be entitled to an Extended Childcare Offer for 3 and 4 year olds. You may also be entitled to Tax Free Childcare, you can find out more about what you many be eligible for here.

Why do the free places stop at the age of five?

Having a free nursery place at a schools nursery does not guarantee admission to the school and parents must apply for a place at the school if they want their child to transfer to the reception class.

Legally, the term after your child turns five, they should begin full-time education. In Derby, schools only take in children in September. If you don’t take up a school place in September and your funding ends, you’ll have to pay for your own nursery place or ’home school’ your child until the following September.

If you cannot do this, then you could speak to our School Admissions team  about completing an ‘in-year application form’. This would allow your child to start school at another time of the year, but doesn’t guarantee your child a place.

Useful forms