Increasing school enrolment has been a focus of investment, even in remote rural areas whose populations are surplus to the requirements of the global economy. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in primary schools and their neighbouring communities in rural areas of Lesotho, India and Laos, we explore how young people, their parents and teachers experience schooling in places where the prospects of incorporation into professional employment (or any well rewarded economic activity) are slim. We show how schooling uses aspiration, holding out a promise of a 'better future' remote from the lives of rural children. However, children’s attachment to such promises is tenuous, boosted yet troubled by the small minority who defy the odds and succeed. We question why education systems continue to promote occupational aspirations that are unattainable by most, and why donors and governments invest so heavily in increasing human capital that cannot be absorbed.