A falling birth rate is creating many such mini schools, which are less stressful. They attract some city folks who move to their rural locations to give their kids a chance to enjoy learning.
SEOUL • Standing in front of a rainbow-coloured school building at the foot of a small mountain, nine-year-old Shin Chae Ni is raving about her class.
She said she gets lots of fun experiences and play time, but not homework or after-class tuition.
"I moved here from Seoul in June last year, and I like this school more. Our lessons are very interesting, and we get to learn taekwondo, piano and ukulele, all for free," said the bubbly, ponytailed girl.
It does not matter to her that there are only 14 pupils in her entire school, or that she has to share lesson time with pupils two years older than she is, in one of three mixed-age classes.
"I like it here," she said with a big smile lighting up her face.
Chae Ni attends Meewon Elementary School's Jangrak branch in Seorak village, which is located in Gapyeong county in Gyeonggi province, about 55km north-east of Seoul.
Once boasting 200 pupils in the 1990s, the school population shrank as young people started migrating to Seoul and other cities. It was struggling to stay open when it had all but seven pupils in 2013 - until its new head teacher decided that action was needed to boost its student intake.
Mini schools like this with fewer than 20 pupils have grown in South Korea, as the country's fertility rate plunged to 1.24 - one of the lowest in the world - amid a rapidly greying population.
It does not help that the country's economic growth has stagnated and youth unemployment hovers around 10 per cent, making life difficult for young people who then decide to marry late and have fewer children, or none at all.
Yet, the number of people aged 65 and above is growing. By 2030, they will comprise one-quarter of the country's projected 52 million population - almost double the current 13 per cent.
The government has tried to boost birth rates by offering cash and welfare incentives, but these have achieved little effect - a problem that also plagues countries like Singapore and Japan.
In South Korea, the lack of children is most evident in small villages in rural provinces like Gyeonggi, Gangwon in the north-east, Jeolla in the south-west, and Gyeongsang in the south-east, where the elderly population far outnumbers the young.
More than 3,700 schools in total, from primary to high schools, have shuttered since the 1990s, and more will suffer the same fate if the country's birth rate remains at rock bottom.
The statistics do not look rosy.
There were only 182,300 babies born in the first five months of this year - the lowest since 2000, according to Statistics Korea. At this rate, the country is likely to have fewer babies this year than the 438,400 born last year.
Already, the number of students in kindergarten, primary and secondary schools has plunged from 7.18 million in 2013 to 6.81 million last year, said the Education Ministry.
Almost one-quarter of the country's 6,218 primary schools took in fewer than 10 new first-year pupils this year, and the same scenario is seen at 335 secondary and 16 high schools nationwide.
To cope with the demographic shift, some counties have started closing down schools and converting them into elderly-friendly facilities.
The Education Ministry has also been pushing for schools in small counties with fewer than 60 students to merge. The same applies to schools in bigger cities with fewer than 200 students.
Some 1,700 schools could be affected, an outcome critics say could discriminate against rural schools and inconvenience students who would have to travel longer distances to study.
At Daenam Elementary School's Pungdo branch, which is the only school on Pung island off the western coast, there are only three pupils, down from six last year.
Closing the school now would deny the children of an education, as it is impossible for them to travel out for school, said the school's one and only teacher, Mr Lee Yun Seok.
The island, which is home to some 150 residents who make a living from farming or fishing, is accessible only by ferry from the nearby port city of Incheon. The journey takes two hours and the ferry makes only two trips a day.
Mr Lee, who was posted to the school last year, said: "Maybe the school will close after this last batch of pupils leaves. I hope they can grow up well and move to a bigger city to lead a happy life."
But there are also some schools bucking the downsizing trend.
Gaegun Elementary School in Gyeonggi's Yangpyeong county has seen a 15 per cent rise in enrolment since 2014, after a new housing complex drew an influx of migrants from Seoul, mostly looking for cheaper accommodation with easy access to the capital city.
The school now has 134 pupils, half of whom had moved from other cities.
PERKS OF SMALL CLASSES
Some mini schools make use of their small size to offer more personalised education and additional services to appeal to parents.
Gaegun Elementary School runs special classes during school vacation time to help double-income families take care of their children. Another school in South Jeolla province allows students to stay in school after class and offers them activities like computer and music lessons.
Over at Meewon Elementary School's Jangrak branch, head teacher Seo Kyung Beom has been working hard to boost the intake since he joined in 2012.
After introducing a variety of experiential learning programmes and working with other schools on special projects in robotics and astronomy, the school has drawn media attention and interest from Seoul parents looking for a way out of the capital city's pressure-cooker education system.
Pointing to two names scribbled on a whiteboard in the teachers' room, Mr Seo said they are two siblings who will join the school soon, raising its total intake to 16. "They actually live in Gangnam (in Seoul) but their parents want to move them here because the older child is having problems in class," he said.
Eight out of the current 14 students had moved from Seoul, including Chae Ni, whose father runs a dumpling restaurant in the capital city while her mother moved to Seorak village with her.
"Most of these parents moved here for the sake of their children's happiness. One boy in Primary 5 was an outcast in his school in Seoul, but he has changed a lot since coming here. He has become very confident and he even made a rocket that won second prize in a competition," said Mr Seo.
Pupils benefit from the school's experiential learning programme, which includes monthly outings to farms, theme parks and mountains. They get to enjoy the outdoors and participate in activities like hiking, camping and harvesting sweet potatoes - all at no additional cost as expenses are covered by the school's budget.
Their experiences would be compiled into a photo yearbook which they will get at the end of the school year, said Mr Seo.
Besides improving the curriculum, the head teacher also managed to transform the school's original grey and dull exterior by inviting college students to come help paint and draw murals on the walls. He also works with nearby high schools on camps and exhibitions.
When this reporter visited the school, there was an ongoing exhibition about gravity and robotic inventions, including a game of street soccer played using remote-controlled robots. Excitement was in the air, as pupils took turns to control the robots in the school's "special room".
One gets the feeling that pupils here lead a carefree life, as school is fun and there is little pressure to pursue academic excellence.
Contrary to concerns that the trend of mini schools could affect students' learning and their peer relations, Mr Seo said the pupils in his school are a close-knit bunch and are taught to look out for one another.
There are only three classrooms, and teachers have to teach a mixed class of two different levels combined - Primary 1 with Primary 6, Primary 2 with Primary 4, and Primary 3 with Primary 5.
Mr Seo said he has to switch from teaching one level to the other every 10 minutes. While he is giving instructions to pupils in one level, the others could be reading books or doing work assigned to them.
As the class sizes are small, teachers are able to give more personalised attention to the pupils, he said.
An English slogan mounted on the wall of the teachers' room reads: "If you dream it, you can do it." It appears to be Mr Seo's own motto for education too.
He said he gave up a promotion opportunity to move to the school, and he has been trying to improve the curriculum in a bid to attract more pupils. The optimal number is 25, he said.
"Our school may be small, but we will shine because of our curriculum. When our students are happy, their parents will also be happy, and that makes me a happy man, too."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'This school in South Korea has only three pupils Field notes'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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