Millions of children in China have been ‘left behind’ in the countryside while their parents work in distant places to support the social reproduction of their families. This article examines the role of study and schooling in this process. The analysis shows that family strategies to pursue socio-economic mobility are intricately connected to state frameworks for providing support, and schools are central to this. This is because both family and state interests in the attributes and prospects of the next generation converge in schools. At the same time, on a day-to-day basis, the labour of children in schools and the labour of parents in the cities are intertwined. Specifically, by communicating with each other about study, and by focusing on the child's educational future as the key purpose of their daily work, both children and parents carry out their obligations towards each other, while finding ways to cope with the emotional difficulties that protracted physical separation entails.