World leaders who care passionately about education will soon gather in Oslo for a summit, convened by Norway’s government, to discuss the educational needs of the world’s poorest children. This is a pivotal year, when the world is deciding on the content and financing of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will guide development efforts for the next 15 years. And it is becoming a year of high-level focus on education. As it should be.

This renewed focus on education partly reflects the world’s shock at recent attacks on education, including the Pakistani Taliban’s shooting of Malala Yousafzai and the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram’s kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria. If these girls can show so much bravery in seeking an education, surely the international community can do more to make sure they succeed in obtaining one.

But there are more good reasons why education should rise to the top of the global development agenda. Most notably, the world must recognize how great the educational needs are, gain a more sophisticated understanding of how the development agenda relies on education, and ensure a growing capability to respond.

First, the needs. Over the last 15 years, the Millennium Development Goal to achieve universal primary education has galvanized the international community, with nearly 90% of the world’s primary school-age children now in school (up from 82% in 1990). The share of primary- and lower secondary-age children not enrolled in school has dropped by 39%.

Despite this progress, roughly 121 million children of primary and lower secondary school age remain out of school. Of the 58 million not in primary school, about 31 million are girls.
Moreover, an estimated 250 million children are receiving educations of such poor quality that they never attain even the most basic benchmarks in literacy and numeracy. As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim remarked at the recent World Education Forum in Korea, if these children all inhabited one country, it would be the fifth-largest on earth.

And there is more painful news: It will take a very long time to close the education gap between the developed and developing worlds. In terms of quality, the Harvard economist Lant Pritchett estimates it will take at least 100 years for children in schools in developing countries to reach the same learning outcomes as those attained today by students in developed countries.

In terms of access, UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report estimates that, on current rates of change, universal lower-secondary education will not be achieved in sub-Saharan African until 2111. Unsurprisingly, it will be the girls who get there last, with the poorest girls gaining access to lower-secondary education a full 70 years after the richest boys.
These startling statistics all add up to one stark conclusion: business as usual is nowhere near good enough. Unless we accelerate progress considerably, we will fail to meet the needs of the world’s children, particularly the poorest girls.

Global leaders have every incentive to respond to this imperative, as the central role of education in enabling the world to achieve its development goals becomes increasingly clear. Put simply, we cannot achieve our vision of a prosperous, healthy, and peaceful world – the one that the SDGs aim to advance – without education.

While the world’s educational needs are huge, and the importance of meeting them is profound, the international community’s capacity to deliver change is growing.

The Global Partnership for Education (which I chair), has been working to support this progress, including by implementing major reforms aimed at expanding our own capabilities. Through our partnerships globally and within 60 developing countries, we advance a country-led development model, as we combine technical capability, advocacy, resource mobilization, and mutual accountability to improve education in our partner countries. At last year’s replenishment conference, $2.1 billion in donor funds were leveraged to bring about an additional $26 billion in pledges from national governments.

To enhance the funds’ effectiveness, GPE allocates 30% of funding based on the achievement of specific results chosen by the government and its development partners in the areas of learning quality, education-system efficiency, and equity. We have also been building our capacity to respond quickly in emergencies, with half of our funding in 2014 supporting education in conflict-affected and fragile countries.

GPE is making a real difference. But I remain haunted by the knowledge that, if we are to move beyond business as usual and slash those hundred-year timelines to meet the 15-year time horizon of the SDGs, we must do much more.

Simply put, advancing the global education agenda will require more resources and more research. According to UNESCO, the international community will need to provide at least an additional $39 billion annually to educate the world’s children – and that is assuming that developing-country governments increase their own expenditure on education.

Resource constraints are compounded by a lack of research. In fact, the fragmentation and paucity of information about effective strategies for schooling and learning has long impeded progress on education. After all, donors understandably want to ensure that their money is directed toward the most effective initiatives. Evidence of what works also turbo-charges the effectiveness of advocacy.

Against this backdrop, participants at the Oslo Summit will be discussing how to generate the momentum and political will to broaden and deepen the donor base, and assess the highest-impact use of these funds. The summit also provides an opportunity to develop strategies for better meeting the needs of children who are being denied an education because of crisis and conflict.
GPE stands ready to contribute to the Oslo Summit, by sharing our experience and knowledge of what works and what more could be achieved with greater investment. We have a profound responsibility to work together to give the world’s children the opportunities they deserve.

This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Julia Gillard, a former Prime Minister of Australia, is Chair of the Global Partnership for Education.

Image: Palestinian first-graders sit with their schoolbooks during class in the West Bank city of Ramallah February 4, 2013. REUTERS.