03/18/2013 01:39 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

Education for Every Child: A Post-2015 Priority

In 2000, 164 governments met in Dakar, Senegal and pledged to achieve the six "Education for All" goals by 2015 committing to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults. This week, education experts from all over the world meet again in Dakar to discuss the best way to ensure education, training and learning is reflected in the post-2015 agenda.

Hosted by the Government of Senegal with support from the governments of Canada, Germany and the Hewlett Foundation, the meeting was led by United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Education and Scientific Organization (UNESCO).

The last two decades have seen remarkable gains in education. Much of it is due to global commitments to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Education for All targets. The number of children of primary age out of school has plummeted from 115 million in 2000 to 61 million in 2010. More than 50 million more children are in education.

Similarly, at the end of the last millennium, two-thirds of the children out of school were girls. Today, more girls are in school than ever before. Gender parity in primary enrolment has improved significantly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, regions that started the decade with the greatest gender gaps.

Yet, it is imperative to move beyond the numbers, to analyze the situation in relation to wealth and other disparities and to look closely at the barriers holding us back from reaching the goals we set out to achieve.

Challenges and incomplete targets

1. Inequalities have limited education opportunities for the most disadvantaged children. People from war-torn zones, those suffering from natural disasters, remote communities, children with disabilities, ethnic minorities and girls still face difficulties accessing a quality education. In some less developed countries, children in the poorest 20 percent of the population are three times less likely to be enrolled in primary school than the wealthiest 20 percent.

2. Despite the progress, of the 61 million primary school age and 71 million children of lower secondary school age who are not in school, more than half -- 53 percent -- are girls who are left out of the education system due to conflict, poverty, natural disasters, discrimination or a lack of nearby schools among other reasons.

3. There has been less success in giving children a quality education with relevant learning opportunities that helps them stay in school. Far too many are dropping out of primary school or coming out of school vastly lacking the basic tools of being able to read and write. Estimates are that 120 million children do not reach Grade 4 -- and an additional 130 million in school are failing to acquire basic reading and numeracy skills. There is an increasing gap between education and the skills needed to thrive in the world of work and society.

4. The shortage of teachers has had a direct impact on the quality of leaning delivered. Currently, an estimated 1.7 million more teachers are required globally to reach the goals of Universal Primary Education by 2015. As we recruit new teachers, we must strive to improve the quality of teaching and learning. Governments should provide teachers with access to training opportunities. Teachers, in turn, must be accountable to their students and communities and be oriented around the goal of teaching all students effectively and equally.

Finishing the Job

There is wide consensus that equity and inclusion need to be at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda. Children with disabilities, living in a conflict zone, ethnicity, religion, being a girl should never be reasons not to have the right to go to school and learn. UNICEF strongly believes that addressing inequalities in societies is not a matter of choice -- it's a moral and practical necessity. It is only fair that all people have the opportunity to live full, healthy and educated lives, no matter where they live, no matter what barriers they face. At the same time, equity in our work saves more lives, is more cost-effective, spurs economic growth and is an important means of 'getting to zero' in preventable deaths, malnutrition and denial of basic services such as education.

We must renew our drive to educate girls that goes beyond numerical parity. Investing in girls not only makes good business sense, it is a golden handshake for development. Do businesses realize they are missing out on a potential workforce - and nations are missing out on a great opportunity to grow their economy? A 1 percent increase in the level of women's education generates 0.3 percent in additional national economic growth.

More attention must be paid to strengthen and improving education systems to ensure transparency and accountability. Infrastructure and text books must be on par with the demand and curricula must prepare children to be active participant in society and in the economy.

Finally, we need to increase the investment in education. The annual funding gap for basic education has widened from $16 billion to $26 billion (U.S.) over the last three years, according to updated Education For All Global Monitoring Report findings released last week. This is mainly due to stagnating aid to basic education that currently stands at just $3 billion annually. The silver lining is that achieving education targets of post-2015 are still possible if governments and donors prioritize allocating resources towards education, and specifically towards those most in need.

We still need to finish the job of giving all children good quality education. Education must be the heart of any framework that will replace the MDGs. Together and in partnership our efforts can make a positive change in the world we want for all children.