Evidence indicates that a much-feted conditional cash transfer programme designed to widen access to basic education in Bangladesh has failed in its aims. The programme is analysed here as an instance of the effort to govern chronic poverty. For the state, education fits within a national project of poverty reduction and creating governable citizens. For the poor, education signals social inclusion and access to the state. Yet class and social distinctions through which state actors ‘see’ poor children result in beneficiary selection practices that routinely exclude the poorest from school, with longer-term adverse effects for their social inclusion and citizenship.