'Education for All' Means Prioritizing the Children Furthest Left Behind

Imagine for a moment a child in a remote, poor and even hostile part of the world, a place where services are nonexistent and access often cut off. This is the child I think about when we talk and plan to reach every child in the world with primary and secondary schooling. That is our goal. It is ambitious and inspirational but it is going to demand a real and sustainable commitment from all of us.

Government, businesses and the people themselves have put education as one of the top Sustainable Development Goals priorities. When more than eight million people were asked in a UN "My World" survey, more than five million ranked education as their top priority, and more than three million of these were under the age of 30.

In the last 15-year development agenda, the Millennium Development Goals, we discovered that when it came to education there was political will. Many -- but not all -- Governments expanded their education budgets and prioritized education in their national agendas. This commitment contributed to increasing the number of children accessing primary school worldwide. Enrollment in primary education in developing regions reached 91 percent in 2015, up from 83 percent in 2000. And the number of boys and girls enrolled in primary school almost equaled.

It was a phenomenal success. However, as we adopt our new ambitious goal, countries must not lose sight of two major lessons we learned from the previous targets. First, simply expanding education systems left behind the most vulnerable children -- the girls and boys living in poverty, affected by conflict, living with a disability or from an ethnic minority. Second, while we celebrated success in terms of access to education, the 2013/4 Education for All Global Monitoring Report shows us that of the 650 million primary-school-age children in the world, 38 percent of them either fail to make it to fourth grade or are not learning the basics of literacy and numeracy.

I believe the key to achieving the goals is to focus on equity and learning.

We need education systems that target our efforts on the most vulnerable children or we will further exacerbate existing inequalities by leaving them behind -- inequalities that will undermine education's contribution to healthier and more peaceful societies. Educating girls, in particular, is a key strategy for reducing harmful practices, addressing child marriage and improving health outcomes.

We also need to focus our efforts to help every child not only secure basic skills but develop the competencies they need to thrive, fulfill their potential and contribute to a better society.

We need to address financing education as quickly as possible. Across low and lower-middle income countries, the total cost of providing universal pre-primary, primary and secondary education is estimated at $340 billion annually through to 2030. Conservative estimates suggest an annual financing gap of $39 billion for the low and lower-middle income countries -- the equivalent of just eight days of annual global military expenditure. With increasing numbers of out-of-school children, an expanding agenda and an expanding population alongside stagnating finances, these figures simply don't add up.

If the goal on education is going to be achieved, governments and their partners will need to make difficult choices in prioritizing and sequencing their investments in education. We cannot afford to pursue an expansive agenda at the cost of the children and youth that are left behind.

Success by 2030 requires reaching that child left farthest behind. It requires getting all children in school and learning from the earliest years when a child's brain has the maximum capacity to learn. Pre-primary schooling improves a child's chance to complete a primary and secondary education. And it requires a focus on girls because an educated girl is a woman that gets married later, has fewer children, is more likely to educate those children and to invest in her community -- in turn, breaking that cycle of poverty.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 4.

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