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Unpacking “Neoliberal Schooling” – Critics of Neoliberal Approaches in Education and Some Reflections on What’s Next

Marcin Sakowicz

Neoliberal culture is well anchored in current education systems. Unfortunately, not many people are conscious enough to recognize its harmful influence on individuals’  behaviours and society at all. “Unpacking Neoliberal schooling” by Chris McNutt helps to understand the negative side of neoliberalism and sets the ground for thinking about systemic change in education.

Neoliberalism is characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade that involves deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision. In education, this leads to an emphasis on competitive market approaches prioritising individualisation of achievements and competition rather than cooperation among learners.

Neoliberalism and its critics

Neoliberalism has been widely criticised because of its role in prioritising ‘free markets’ as the optimum way of solving problems and organising society. It was the driving doctrine of many economic reforms in the second half of the XX century as response to failures of central planning and state interventionism. Market based approaches were imposed domestically and internationally. Tough still in power neoliberalism loses its grounds[1].

The author of “Unpacking Neoliberal Schooling” shows in an innovative way how neoliberalism has penetrated the daily routines of today’s schools and has firmly entrenched in education system. Illuminated in the article examples for the first moment are very attractive for clients and consumers of educations goods (practices mindfulness to get students through the school day, setting aside an hour each week to support student interests or changing the grading system or even well-planned game that engaged students in course content).  Chris McNutt in a nice way demystifies these practices that supposed to be innocent at their core but in reality strengthen the neoliberal approach.

He argues “unlike the market, which throws aside those who lack access, ability, or equity to participate – education is a place where  all have the opportunity to grow and develop.” Meanwhile the traps of neoliberal ideology lie in the unconscious of the consumers of education. These are examples: overwhelming grading undermines intrinsic motivation, building relationships to control classroom replaces authentic real connections with students. Neoliberalism works good  if we want to develop efficient, creative and problem-solving learners and workers for a globally competitive economy.  

On one hand the cost of the neoliberal approaches is disregard of social and developmental responsibilities[2]. Competitive individualism and individuation instilled in contemporary educational cultures weaken social ties and limit the possibilities for a shared sense of purpose and collaboration.

On the other hand, we risk throwing out some of neoliberalism’s useful ideas by criticizing neoliberalism. There is nothing wrong with markets, private entrepreneurship or incentives – when deployed appropriately. Their creative use lies behind the most significant economic achievements of our time[3]. So if we are finding what’s wrong with neoliberalism, similar reprimand may refer to governments’ failures. It is therefore natural to ask about the “third” way or what kind of approaches, values, mechanisms, solutions are adequate in today’s world? In fact, “Unpacking Neoliberal schooling” strongly advocates for making a difference and changing the whole education system.

What’s next? – we have to learn to think in a new way – starting from economics

Confronting with collapse of  one-dimensional thinking we are looking for fundaments of the new economic system and social order, tailored to the demands of the 21st century. Such a compass for human progress this century may be  Doughnut Economics proposed by Kate Raworth[4]. In her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist Raworth draws new picture of world economies. As she writes: “let’s put GDP growth aside and start afresh with a fundamental question: what enables human beings to thrive? A world in which every person can lead their life with dignity, opportunity and community – and where we can all do so within the means of our life-giving planet”[5].

Then Raworth introduces the concept of the Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries (Graphic 1).

The Doughnut consists of two concentric rings. The inner ring represents the social base of the economy, to ensure that no one is left falling short on life’s essentials.  The outer one – the ecological ceiling to ensure that humanity does not collectively overshoot the planetary boundaries. The twelve dimensions of the social foundation are derived from internationally agreed minimum social standards, used the UN proposal, i.e. the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda. The environmental ceiling consists of nine planetary boundaries beyond which lie unacceptable environmental degradation and potential tipping points in Earth systems. Between social and planetary boundaries lies an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.

Raworth tries to change the mindset of XXI century economists. She is not the only one.  Jason Hickel provides the most persuasive and comprehensive argument in favour of “degrowth”.  He argues within title of his book: “Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World”[6]. The main purpose of economic activity is to meet human needs. The central idea underpinning degrowth is for a “planned downscaling of energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way.” “Rethinking Economics” connects people globally to bring about economics education that is pluralist, realistic, diverse and decolonised. Furthermore, they appear other alternatives to neoliberalism leading towards more equality and democracy[7].  What all that means to education?

Drawing new picture of education & learning

Within new context of the XXI century, we must therefore ask questions about the role and definition of those learners, parents, teachers, community groups and schools. This is in line with Holistic Think Tank’s mission highlighted on two levels:

  • THOUGHT: creating and shaping fundamental ideas for education to impact the future world in terms of the values, skills, and beliefs, including giving a space for exchanging visions and expertise between experts.
  • PRACTICE: working on curricula and class scenarios for schools and teachers to guide and implement a change in the thinking of the humanity of tomorrow.

HTT contributes to this debate by presenting “Fundamental values and core skills schools should teach as per to holistic approach to education (the HTT list)[8].


Hamilton, M. Resisting Neoliberalism in Education: Resources of Hope,

Fundamental values and core skills schools should teach as per to holistic approach to education (the HTT list),

Rudnicki P.(2012), Edukacja w warunkach polskiego neoliberalizmu – refleksje okołopedagogiczne,

Ross, E Wayne & Gibson, Rich. (2007). Neoliberalism and Education Reform.

Raworth K. (2017) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist,

Resisting Neoliberalism in Education Local, National and Transnational Perspectives

Edited by Lyn Tett and Mary Hamilton

Šumonja M. Neoliberalism is not dead – On political implications of Covid-19. Capital & Class. 2021;45(2):215-227. doi:10.1177/0309816820982381

Visions for Higher Education, Barcelona: Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi). Open access:, p. 216-222.

Wals, AEJ (2022) Transgressive learning, resistance pedagogy and disruptive capacity building as levers for sustainability. In: Higher Education in the World 8 – Special issue New





[5] Raworth K. (2017) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, p.43,




About the author
Marcin Sakowicz
Academic and mentor, holds PhD degree in economics, Visiting Fellow at the Oslo University, Department of Political Science, International Policy Fellow - OSI Budapest, at Warsaw School of Economics he was involved in research and expertise on local self-governance, state institutions and democracy, he has more than 20 years of experience in learning and development of youth and adults, works as trainer and mentor, cooperated with Bullerbyn Foundation for Community of Children and Adults, within the National School of Public Administration he stimulates innovative and interactive approaches to training and education in the public sector. He is enthusiast of life-long learning which happens anywhere.
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