British colonial rule has often been praised for its comparatively benign features, such as its support for local educational development. This paper studies the origins of formal education in sub-Saharan Africa arguing that the beneficial effects of British educational policy should not be overstated. British African colonies showed significantly higher school enrolment rates in the late colonial era, but these were not the result of impressive investment efforts. Missionary schools provided the bulk of education to native Africans at extremely low costs. We show that local African conditions affecting the African reception of missionary education explain much more of the variation in colonial educational outcomes than metropolitan identity.