As the Abbott government launches a sweeping review into the new national curriculum, the country’s curriculum chief has rejected claims that a partisan progressive agenda is being foisted on students.

And the lead writer of the national history curriculum has blasted Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s choice of reviewers, saying they lack credibility and expertise in the area.

Pyne announced this morning that two of the curriculum’s harshest critics — education consultant Kevin Donnelly and Queensland University public administration professor Ken Wiltshire — will review the national curriculum. Pyne says a review is needed to ensure the curriculum is “balanced in its content, free of partisan bias and deals with real-world issues”.

Historian Stuart Macintyre, lead author of the national history curriculum, told Crikey he was alarmed by Pyne’s appointments. “I don’t think Kevin Donnelly has any credibility at all,” he said. “The book he wrote, Dumbing Down, is almost illiterate — it shows a deplorable lack of understanding of education and curriculum.”

Macintyre says he’s also concerned that Donnelly — a former chief of staff to Liberal MP Kevin Andrews — has been tasked with ensuring the curriculum is free of partisan bias. Regarding Wiltshire, Macintyre says he is not regarded as an expert on school curricula (Wiltshire, it should be noted, chaired a review of the Queensland school curriculum for the Goss Labor government).

“Christopher Pyne has been banging this drum for several years — I think he believes there is political mileage in reigniting the culture wars,” Macintyre said.

Barry McGaw, chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), strongly defended the national curriculum this morning, saying it has been subject to years of rigorous debate and review. National curricula for English, maths, science and history up to year 10 have been agreed by all state and territory ministers and will begin being implemented in NSW this year.

Asked whether it’s fair for critics to assert, as Donnelly has, that the national curriculum was mandating a “cultural Left” agenda for schools, McGaw told Crikey: “No, I don’t think it’s fair. For example, there has been a lot of misrepresentation of the role of cross-curriculum priorities [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture, engagement with Asia and sustainability] — including by Judith Sloan on Radio National this morning.”

McGaw says these areas will only be addressed where relevant and barely covered, if at all, in courses such as mathematics. And there has been a strong back-to-basics approach to English. “In English we have reinstated a stronger emphasis on grammar and other aspects of language — stronger than currently exists in most state curricula,” he said.

McGaw says Donnelly and Wiltshire are both competent and the ACARA will consider their recommendations. “You can always benefit from review,” he said.

Stuart Macintyre, who has long opposed conservative historians in the so-called “history wars”, predicts the government will have “enormous difficulties” implementing curriculum changes as further tinkering is likely to be resisted by state governments.

“The ACARA used a consultation process that was almost interminable,” he said. “Most of them would say, ‘go away — we’ve spent years getting this right and now you want to go and upset it’ … All [Pyne] has to force their hand is the traditional funding blackmail card, but he has already criticised federal command and control of education,” Macintyre said.

Macintyre also disagrees with claims made by Pyne this morning that there is not enough focus on Anzac Day in the curriculum. “There is a great slab on Anzac already — too much in my view,” he said.

Pyne defended his appointments this morning, saying:

“It’s not possible to appoint anybody to review the national curriculum who doesn’t have a view on education. The important point is to appoint people who are going to bring an intelligent and considered approach to the review, and both Kevin and Ken have a long history and experience in education.”

Kevin Donnelly, head of the Education Standards Institute, defended his track record, telling Crikey: “There are more important issues at stake than personal vitriol. The reality is I taught for 18 years and have postgraduate qualifications — including a masters and PhD — focussing on curriculum. I’m eminently qualified to do this job.”

When asked if he is currently a member of the Liberal Party, Donnelly said: “I am a member of lots of groups … Sorry, I don’t think that is relevant.”

Crikey also contacted Ken Wiltshire this morning but didn’t receive a response before deadline; we’ll add any comment as it is received.