The Northern Ireland Government funds the provision of pre-school education, which in the rest of the UK, Ireland, and wider Europe is defined as “Early Childhood Education and Care”. Residents of Northern Ireland are also eligible for some UK-wide childcare subsidy schemes.

The Ulster Unionist Party claimed in their 2019 Manifesto that UUP MPs would “end the scandal of Northern Ireland remaining the only UK jurisdiction without funded childcare provision”, adding that they will “support calls for the full implementation of a Childcare Strategy, with specific objectives supported by legislation”.

What is childcare?

A basic definition of childcare is the care and supervision of a child or multiple children at a time. Childcare can take place in the following environments:

  • in a child’s home (e.g. by parents, nannies, au pairs, friends and family)
  • in a childcare provider’s home (e.g. by accredited childminders)
  • in a daycare centre/day nursery (e.g. by “Early Years” specialists and other teachers)

In England, the statutory agency, OFSTED, inspects and regulates childminders and premises where childminding and daycare is provided, for those under the age of five. OFSTED is also responsible for the inspection of state schools and other education institutions where childcare takes place.

In Scotland, the relevant agency is Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMIe), which is charged with inspecting the quality of education in pre-school centres, as well as primary, secondary, and other types of schools. The Scottish Government combined the terms “early learning” and “childcare”, and is applicable to those under the age of five.

In Wales, childcare is defined as “provision during which the needs of the child (care, play and education) are delegated to, and accepted, by a third party in absence of a parent”. Also, the Welsh Government defines “Early Childhood Education and Care” (ECEC) employing the terminology used at European level [indeed, globally] to describe services “that broadly combine education and care in one seamless experience for young children and their families”.

In Ireland, the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme provides for “children of pre-school age”.
In Northern Ireland, Early Years Teams — specialist teams of social workers within Health and Social Care (HSC) Trusts — are responsible for the registration, inspection, monitoring and support of childminders and day care providers.

In consideration of all terminology above, for the purpose of evaluating this claim, we used a definition of childcare as “provision of care, play, and education to those under the age of five” (i.e. before enrolment in primary school).

What childcare is funded by Northern Ireland?

There is no Northern Ireland Government funded programme for childcare for those aged under 3.

The Department of Education sponsors a Pre-School Education Programme, which funds education for children in the year before they start primary school. The Department defines this as “funded pre-school education” and “not free or funded childcare”. The Department of the Environment is distinguishing between services provided by childminders (e.g. in a childminder’s home) and services provided by early years specialists (e.g. in a nursery school).

Under this programme, most pre-schools in Northern Ireland offer 12.5 hours per week as “part-time” places of 2.5 hours a day (see “What is a funded Pre-School?”), 475 hours per year, spread over at least 38 weeks of term from September to June. However, some pre-schools offer “full-time” places of 4.5 hours a day. According to the Education Authority website, 212 out of 721 pre-schools in Northern Ireland offer at least some full-time places of 4.5 hours a day (855 hours a year), 29% of pre-schools overall.

What state funded childcare is provided elsewhere?

The following table summarises state funded childcare provision in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and how this is classified by the relevant government.

Funded Provision2 year olds3-4 year oldsFlexible TimingsFlexible ProvidersClassification 
Northern Irelandnone475 hours a year for all children.
855 hours a year in 29% of pre-schools.
nonoPre-school education.
England570 hours a year for low income families.1,140 hours a year for certain working families.
570 hours a year for all children.
yesyesEarly education and childcare.
Scotland600+ hours a year for families on a range of benefits.*600+ hours per year for all children.*noyesEarly learning and childcare.
Wales487.5 hours per year (term time) for families in disadvantaged areas + 15 sessions over school holidays1,440 hours a year for working families — can be spread over 48 weeks to include summer holidays.
390+ hours a year for all children.
N.B. some school holiday provision
yesEarly education and childcare.
Ireland570 hours a year for all children from 2 years 8 months.570 hours a year for all children.noyesEarly childhood care and education.

* The Scottish government has a target to expand provision for 3-4 year olds and eligible 2 year olds to 1,140 hours a year by August 2020. This expansion programme is already underway, so some children are already receiving in excess of 600 hours a year of funded childcare.

Can residents of Northern Ireland avail of UK-wide childcare schemes?

In addition to funded pre-school education, people in Northern Ireland can apply for various UK-wide subsidised childcare schemes. A contribution is given to parents towards childcare in a range of approved settings such as with a registered childminder, play scheme, nursery, club, a school registered to provide childcare or an approved home childcarer.

Tax-free childcare was introduced in 2017 and began to roll out in Northern Ireland from 2018. For children under 12, parents and carers can set up an account to pay for approved childcare, and the government will top this up by 20%. NI Direct explains that “for every £8.00 you pay in, the government adds £2.00 to your account”.

For people working over 16 hours a week, the Childcare Element of Working Tax Credit was a means-dependent contribution towards childcare costs. This scheme is being phased out across the UK, and replaced with Universal Credit. Some people in Northern Ireland continue to receive the Childcare Element of Working Tax Credit. Universal Credit also has a childcare element for working families for children up to 16. Subsidies are means-dependent, and neither scheme pays the full cost of childcare (the maximum that can be awarded under Universal Credit is 85% of childcare costs).

A UK childcare voucher scheme has been closed to new applicants since October 2018. This saw the government allow £55 per week of someone’s income to be tax free.


The Northern Ireland Government funds the provision of childcare in a daycare/nursery/pre-school environment, through its Pre-School Education Programme.

Northern Ireland defines early years provision differently than England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere in Europe. It classifies this provision as “pre-school education”, in contrast to “early education and childcare”.
UK-wide childcare subsidy schemes are available in Northern Ireland, but none of them are designed to cover all the costs.

It is the case that Northern Ireland has no official childcare strategy, and no childcare objectives supported by legislation.

Image: Photo by Ian Allenden used by license

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