In this paper, I develop a critique of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)-based lifelong learning policy discourse with a particular focus on ‘key competencies’ (KCs) and its equity implications for school curricular policies. First, I review
the discussion of KCs in the writings by the OECD-affiliated researchers and other OECD documents. In so doing, I identify a marked decoupling of KCs from the initial lifelong learning policy framework. Then, I situate the discussion of KCs within the sociological critique of the new mode
of learning deemed essential for a ‘knowledge society’. I identify KCs’ potential to naturalize the (re)production of inequalities through schooling and argue that this can be further compounded by the extraction of KCs from the lifelong learning policy discourse. Finally,
I ground these expositions in the specific policy context of Japanese education, highlighting how KCs and its decoupled articulation pose a difficult policy dilemma for Japan’s Ministry of Education attempting to address the widening class-based inequalities through schooling. Hence,
this study critiques the contemporary school curriculum reform driven by KCs by tracing the flow of this concept from the international policy discourse down to the level of a national policy development. In conclusion, I call for curriculum studies to recognize the increasingly globalized
curricular policy context and develop strategies for the new challenges of educational inequalities that confront us today.