HO SIN-TUNG used to regard school as a form of torture. 'I didn't understand what the teacher taught and always got zero marks in English dictation,' the 11-year-old says, recalling her time at a school in Long Ping Estate in Yuen Long. She lost confidence and interest in learning and dreaded classes. Noticing the problem, Sin-tung's mother transferred her to the Small Traders New Village Public School, where class sizes were smaller. The move placed her in a lower-level English class to give her a better foundation in the language. But Sin-tung quickly caught up with her Primary Four peers and, a few weeks ago, when the new academic year began, the youngster's attitude to school had changed radically. 'I love going to school,' she says. 'It's very happy and relaxed here. Teachers are just like family, and many classmates play with me and help me with homework.' Despite such successes, Small Traders and other village schools such as Wai Kwan Primary School, also in Yuen Long, are marked for closure. They are among the casualties of a 2003 cost-cutting exercise under which primary schools are required to enrol at least 23 Primary One pupils each year. Those failing to reach the target must stop admitting new students and stop all classes within three years. Of the 31 schools closed so far, 23 were village schools. Even so, some parents still choose to send their children to rural schools. Consider Peggy Chan Lai-sheung, who in February enrolled her 10-year-old daughter Yeung Cho-yu in Wai Kwan - despite the prospect of closure. They became accustomed to small class sizes after having lived in the Netherlands. The incident that tipped Chan's decision, though, was when she found the principal trying to save an ailing tree in the schoolyard. 'Rather than chop it down, he said he would find out what the problem was and see whether the tree could be saved,' she says. 'After hearing this, I felt comfortable about sending my daughter to the school.' A report this year by Lo Wai-yin, a lecturer at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, confirmed the advantages that parents saw in country schools. She had become intrigued after noticing enrolments increase at the two schools despite impending closure. Lo interviewed the parents, a number of whom were professionals. Among the reasons they gave for choosing village schools were: green and spacious surroundings, a more relaxed atmosphere for learning, attention to individuals and an emphasis on developing a caring attitude among the children. Despite her initial doubts, Lee Sau-fong finds Wai Kwan suits her son Lo Tsz-hong better than the elite Catholic school he previously attended. There the pressure had frequently made him ill. But at the country school, her 11-year-old thrived, fascinated by the open spaces. A year after switching, Tsz-hong has not only maintained his high grades but has learned to be less materialistic. 'Once I offered to buy him a Superman bag for school, but he said he didn't need it,' Lee recalls with a smile. 'He was happy to have a plastic bag like all the others.' While village schools may not have the latest computers, many parents regard the environment as more conducive to learning than the pressure-cooker atmosphere in many standard schools. Some even commute from other districts. 'The parents are very happy that they have made the changes for their children. They say their family life is much happier,' says Lo Wai-yin. She wants the Education and Manpower Bureau to adopt a more flexible policy and says officials should assess the performance of individual schools. However, education officials maintain that pupils benefit most if they're placed in standard schools, arguing they offer better facilities and an improved environment. 'Village schools, unlike purpose-built primary schools in the urban areas, bear the characteristics of sub-standard facilities for teaching and learning; difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified and experience teachers; incomplete class structure with combined classes,' a bureau spokesman writes. 'All of these have limited the schools' ability to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, and thus have an adverse effect on pupils' personal development.' Lo criticises the government's comments as unfounded, saying academic standards in village schools can be on par with those in urban schools. Youth social worker Wong Fung-yee agrees, saying that many youngsters she sent to Wai Kwan were excellent students. 'This school is very special. Students here are happy and active in learning,' says Wong. 'Teachers are concerned, and able to make the children feel accepted. As a result, they feel more confident and naturally will perform better.' According to Lo, some schools on outlying islands have raised enrolment of expatriate children - a boost to their chances of survival. The Mui Wo School attracts several expat children in each class although it still teaches in Chinese. And another village school on Lamma counts more than 10 expat children per class, giving rise to bilingual classes. Village schools sprang up in the 1950s, at a time when primary education was not universal. They reached a peak in the 60s, mushrooming across the New Territories. But in later years enrolments began to fall as villagers moved to the city. Lower birth rates and the government's closure rule, dubbed the 'kill school' policy, speeded the decline. Of the remaining 54 village schools in Hong Kong, 21 are marked for closure. Officials tally school intakes a year in advance of the start of classes. Critics say the move destroys village schools, where admissions are usually late. Wai Kwan's fate was sealed early last year when it fell a few short of the 23 pupils needed to support a Primary One class. Yet after news spread of its impending closure in 2007, the school received 51 new student applications. This year, it enrolled 19 new students. The student population at Wai Kwan now stands at 200. Small Traders school is tiny by comparison, with a roll of 40 pupils. But it also gets a lot of admission inquiries despite being scheduled to close next year. The school took 13 new pupils last year but has rejected all applications this year, except in special cases, to avoid disrupting students' studies. Even so, teachers maintain a warm atmosphere at the school, with three bungalows clustered around a square. During a lunch break on a recent weekday, pupils could be seen gathered around a teacher, chattering as they would to a friend. Principal Lok Lai-fong, who has devoted most of her life to the school, is resigned to its sad end. She had been shocked and angry at first. Along with teachers, parents and students from both her school and six others, she saw legislators, held a signature campaign, marched in Central and met with education officials, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Wai Kwan principal Chung Lap-boon still tries to improve school facilities. He has built a computer room and a library with equipment salvaged from closed schools. 'One day, others may come to pick over our books and computers when we close,' he says.