School education is held up as an ‘escape route from poverty’. Millions of poor children and families are buying into this promise and often investing scarce resources in going to school, in the hope that it will lead to a better life. This paper looks at children’s unequal trajectories from early childhood through to the time they leave school, examining the factors shaping their educational opportunities and achievement. It synthesises existing Young Lives analysis based on research with two age cohorts in each of the study countries - Ethiopia, Andhra Pradesh in India, Peru and Vietnam. It looks at the large achievement gaps that exist between different groups of children. For school education to start fulfilling its promise as a route out of poverty, there is a need for more equitable, better-quality schooling and training that can translate into realistic opportunities for young people.