A growing body of research suggests that orphanhood and fostering might be (independently) associated with educational disadvantage in sub-Saharan Africa. However, literature on the impacts of orphanhood and fostering on school enrolment, attendance and progress produces equivocal, and often conflicting, results. This paper reports on quantitative and qualitative data from sixteen field-sites in Ghana and Malawi, highlighting the importance of historical and social context in shaping schooling outcomes for fostered and orphaned children. In Malawi, which has been particularly badly affected by AIDS, orphans were less likely to be enrolled in and attending school than other children. By contrast, in Ghana, with its long tradition of ‘kinship fostering’, orphans were not significantly educationally disadvantaged; instead, non-orphaned, purposively fostered children had lower school enrolment and attendance than their peers. Understanding the context of orphanhood and fostering in relation to schooling is crucial in achieving ‘Education for All’.