Around 8,000 more children will be eligible for funded two year old places under universal credit, according to plans put out for consultation.

The introduction of universal credit, which replaces the current benefit system, means that the Government needs to set similar eligibility criteria for families receiving it, to ensure ‘the early years offer continues to be targeted at those children who can most benefit from it’.

The DfE is seeking views from early years organisations, providers and parents, on the eligibility criteria for the free entitlement for two-year-olds, following the introduction of universal credit.

The consultation proposes setting a net earnings threshold of £15,400, not including any extra income through benefits. It estimates that a typical family earning around £15,400 a year have a total household income of between £24,000 and £32,000 once benefits are taken into account.

The DfE estimates that by applying this eligibility criteria around 8,000 more children would take up the two-year-old places once universal credit is fully rolled out, compared to the number currently receiving it.

The Government intends that this earnings threshold for the two-year-old entitlement comes into effect from 1 April 2018.

Minister for children and families Robert Goodwill said, ‘Expanding access to high-quality early education is essential if we are to give every child the best start in life, which is why we are investing a record amount in childcare – £6 billion by 2020.

‘Our proposals not only ensure that no two-year-old who is already benefiting from the free 15-hour offer loses it, but will give thousands more the chance to benefit, supporting their early development.

‘This is an important issue and it is important that we get this right. We want to hear from families, early years professionals and other experts throughout this consultation so we can identify those children who need our support most.’

The DfE said that as of January 2017 around 160,000 two-year-olds were taking up the offer. Under the proposals, all children who are taking it up already will continue to access it.

A consultation is already underway on proposed changes to the threshold for eligibility for free school meals and the early years pupil premium.

Sector organisations welcomed the news that more children would have access to places, but stressed that the inadequate funding for 30-hour childcare was put nurseries’ sustainability, and the availability of two-year-old places at risk.

PLA chief executive Purnima Tanuku said, ‘Expanding the two-year-old offer to give more children the best start in life is the right thing to do, especially in the light of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report launched yesterday.

‘Teachers are already seeing that children who have benefited from the two year old 15 hours of funded childcare are starting school ready to learn. A play-based approach to high quality early education is the best way to reduce the widening inequality gap.’