Much research has suggested that focusing on the determinants of female enrolment and dropout tells us little about girls’ experiences of schooling in developing countries and cannot explain variation in their educational trajectories. This paper draws on quantitative (n = 1177) and qualitative data (n = 15) collected by Young Lives in Ethiopia to explore the educational experiences of girls aged 11–15 living in five rural and urban communities. It focuses on the diversity in girls’ experiences and outcomes that can be obscured by simple quantitative measures and aggregated data. As this diversity is often attributed to individual motivation or ‘culture’, the paper investigates the relationship between accounts of local norms and individual aspirations and experiences. Finally, it uses a comparative case study of two urban schoolgirls to contextualise educational outcomes and explore the processes behind them. The paper concludes that even when measured outcomes are expanded to include ‘student engagement’ the methodological focus on the individual neglects the social, material and political–economic factors that shape their educational trajectories. This makes it more difficult to understand girls’ aspirations and experiences or support their schooling.