What is it like for young people not to conform to increasingly globalised standards of ‘modern childhood’, as epitomised by formal schooling? Drawing on ethnographic and participatory research conducted with Qur’anic students (Almajirai) in Kano, Nigeria, this article explores how young people – excluded from forms of knowledge to which they aspire – struggle to make sense of the constraints upon their lives and futures. It first traces how the Almajiri system evolved from a prestigious avenue to power into a coping strategy for the poor. It then describes the educational policy context of the Almajirai's experiences and explores how, shut out from modern Islamic and secular models of education, they cope with the exclusion and rejection they face in daily life. Throughout the article, the problematic implications of pushing for universal enrolment without addressing the inequalities governing access to education that is meaningful and of acceptable quality are pointed out.