Independent schools are preparing to opt out of the early years foundation stage (EYFS) - known by some as the "nappy curriculum" - en masse if changes are made to the way it is enforced.
About 500 pre-prep schools are likely to discard the framework, which sets out what should be expected of preschool and reception children, on the grounds that the principle of parental choice should be paramount.
Ministers have spent the past month running a hush-hush consultation on changes to the exemption system that would allow independent schools to opt out of the learning requirements if inspectors judge them to be "good" or better.
The government is also proposing to allow groups of schools - for example, the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) - to apply to be exempt.
Maintained schools, academies and free schools would not be permitted to apply for an exemption.
The EYFS has been in place since 2008. It was recently reviewed by Dame Clare Tickell and a revised, slimmed-down version is due come into force in September. The Tickell review recommended that the framework should continue to apply to all providers, but did suggest that the government should review the exemption process as it applied to independent schools.
IAPS has long been opposed to the compulsory nature of the EYFS, believing it to be a contradiction - independent schools do not have to follow the national curriculum from Year 1 onwards. "For our schools, it is a principle that is at stake, and that principle is parental choice," said David Hanson, IAPS chief executive. "It has never been about the EYFS per se.
"Our fundamental concern was that the government imposed a methodology on all schools. We believe that it is a fundamental breach of human rights: parents should be able to choose the education they want for their child.
"Undoubtedly the EYFS has improved the poorest settings, but at the same time it has frustrated the best practitioners."
Mr Hanson added: "We represent 500 high-quality schools. I think the vast majority of schools will technically opt out but still continue to use the best parts of the EYFS. We don't have an argument in terms of the principle of developing emerging literacy and numeracy and the goals themselves make sense.
"But it's to do with professional autonomy. We want teachers to be able to use their professional discretion rather than being compelled to follow a government strategy."
Paradoxically, the government has said that it remains committed to the EYFS as a universal framework for early education and childcare.
Some organisations are unhappy at the prospect of the exemption and that they were not formally consulted on the proposed changes. Once such group is Early Education.
Megan Pacey, the charity's chief executive, said she had been forwarded the consultation. "We've had no official contact from the Department for Education. Someone passed it on to me," she said. "In broad terms we're disappointed at the scope of the consultation. It seems to fly in the face of the Tickell review, which wanted very few exemptions.
"The new EYFS is even broader than it was before, so it can encompass many early years approaches. It seems to us this will give more scope for people to opt out. Exemptions do very little to support overall quality improvements."
Similarly, Bernadette Duffy, head of the Thomas Coram Centre in London and a member of the Tickell review's expert panel, was not sent a copy of the consultation document.
"Our view is that there is enough flexibility within the framework to embrace different traditions and different ways of working. I'd be interested to see the actual impact of exemptions," she said. "I hope most people won't want to exempt themselves from it as it is based on research about what works best for the vast majority of children.
"The framework is really good for focusing on how children learn and that seems as appropriate for children in the independent sector as any other sector."
THE YOUNG ONES
The early years foundation stage (EYFS) is a framework that sets out what educators should expect of children aged 5 and under. The revised EYFS is due to come into force in September.
It has three sections: learning and development requirements; how children will be assessed; and welfare standards.
The government has said that its aim in revising the EYFS was to reduce the bureaucracy for professionals and to better prepare children for school. The statutory framework has been almost cut in half to just 30 pages.
The current assessment requires teachers to rate five-year-olds on a scale of 1-9 on 13 measures, while the new framework asks teachers to rate pupils as below, meeting or above 17 targets. Writing goals have been slightly simplified, but the maths target at age 5 is now more challenging.
The revised framework also introduces a new assessment for two-year-olds. This short statement must highlight the child's strengths and identify where progress in their communication, physical or emotional development is below expected.