04/17/2013 03:22 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

Putting the Last Child First

At the turn of the millennium, the world came together to promise that by 2015, every child would complete a full course of primary schooling. Tomorrow, in support of the UN Secretary-General's Global Education First Initiative, eight countries that are home to one half of the world's out of school children will agree to prioritized actions in a bid to bring reaching that goal closer.

Over the last 13 years we have seen tremendous progress -- the number of out of school children has decreased by more than 50 million, with rapid gains in the numbers of girls able to go to school in some countries. Whilst this shows that progress can be made, the lessons we have learnt along the way suggest that the fight for education is only just beginning.

Progress has been uneven between and within countries. Some countries -- for example Burundi, Rwanda, Togo and Tanzania -- have seen rapid declines in the numbers of children out of school. Others have seen the number of out of school children stagnate, or even increase. And even in countries where the numbers of out of school children have dropped dramatically -- such as Ethiopia -- over 40 percent of poor rural girls never attend school. These disparities limit the education opportunities for the most excluded children: those with disabilities, those living with the impact of conflict or humanitarian disaster. It is time to put the last child first.

All too often it is the girls that are being left behind. UNICEF believes, educating girls - primary and secondary - tackles the root causes of poverty, and contributes to the wider realisation not only of their rights, but the rights of generations to come. Educated girls earn more, have healthier babies, are less likely to die in child-birth, more likely to send their own children to school, and less likely to be victims of domestic violence. In South Sudan, there are currently only about 800 girls in the last grade of secondary school. This, in itself, will be an obstacle to lifting communities out of poverty. Sadly, in some countries UNICEF is concerned about the increase in violence targeted at girls and their teachers, because of their thirst for education.

Going to school is not enough - improving learning is critical. There is a common perception that today's schools are failing to prepare young people for tomorrow's challenges. Improving learning - from early childhood to adulthood - is fundamental if the benefits of education for the individual, the community and the nation are to be realised. The Education for All Global Monitoring Report estimates that as many as 250 million children are unable to read and write even in grade 4. Without these fundamental skills, the basis for all future learning is undermined. This is a tragedy for every affected child and a catastrophic waste of potential.

With only 988 days to go until the end of 2015, the Learning for All Ministerial, in support of the UN Secretary General's Global Education First Initiative, provides an unprecedented opportunity to bring together Ministers of Education and Finance, UN agencies, development partners, civil society and youth. They will focus their attention on identifying priority actions to open up new and improved education opportunities for children in Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen.

The actions identified by each country will differ, but UNICEF expects to see some common themes: the need to increase finances for education, domestically and from external partners; the need to strengthen the delivery of education at all levels - and strengthen accountability for the learning for all children; the need to recruit teachers, train them and support them to work in challenging environments. All of this matters, but is not enough. The question we need to be able to answer is whether the priorities identified, in each country, will improve the education opportunity for the most vulnerable child? For the poor rural girl? By putting the last child first, we provide opportunities for all.