As Hong Kong slips into its worst recession in decades, Education Commission chairman Antony Leung Kam-chung believes the time has come for changes in the problem-stricken education system. Last week, the commission, which advises the Government on educational development, launched a communal debate on the fundamental question - aims of education - as a curtain-raiser to a thorough reform of the sector. 'The timing is very good,' he says. 'Hong Kong is suffering from recession. The jobless figure goes up and public sentiments are unstable. It's exactly because of all these that Hong Kong people want to change. 'We are not starting a revolution. We are going with the wind and the aspirations of the society. If the tide is against us, we can't do anything no matter how hard we try.' The high-flier in Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's cabinet - the Executive Council - says he has become the target of complaints from people of varying backgrounds when they have found out about his involvement in education policy. 'Educationists from other parts of the world admire us a lot because our parents attach a lot of importance to education,' he says. 'They are willing to spend a lot of money and effort. 'This is the best time to improve education. The public has a lot of expectations of us as we all see the importance of enhancing our competitiveness and the quality of education.' Under a three-stage plan, Mr Leung says the commission hopes the community will reach a broad consensus on the aims of education at different stages and the responsibilities of relevant people and bodies. That will be stage one. The consultation will end on March 6. During stage two, policy options for different areas in the academic system such as curriculum and assessment will be floated for discussion. In stage three, the commission will make an overall recommendation on the way forward for education. The whole process will take about a year. Mr Leung is not worried about the difficulties in getting a consensus from the views gathered at the consultation. 'From what I have heard so far, those who agree with the four broad aims I have earlier raised out-number those who disagree with them.' The four are enjoyment, language, creativity and commitment. He says he is sorry many pupils do not find enjoyment in education and are afraid of going to school. 'Our education system lays the emphasis more on memorising than creativity while our society wants people to be versatile and creative,' he says. 'In the new era, we should promote a sense of commitment and contribution of our students to the future of the nation and the society.' Mr Leung admits that few people talk about commitment to China although Hong Kong has returned to Chinese sovereignty. 'The concept of nation among the present generation is weak. But we don't need to rush things . . . The dosage should not be too strong. I'm convinced the sense of national identity will develop in the long-run. In 25 years' time, the Chinese economy will rank second in the world and its political development will be more liberal and open. 'Hong Kong people are pragmatic. Their feelings of identity will grow after the economy and the overall strength of the nation increase. Just like the US and Europe in the 1970s and Japan in the 80s. When they became more powerful, their cultural influence became stronger.' Mr Leung maintains action is needed. 'I don't want to sit and wait for it to happen. It's not just out of my own feelings. We need to look beyond our border for our development . . .' An economics graduate of the University of Hong Kong, Mr Leung has drawn from his own experience in reforming education. 'I was very lazy in school spending my time on sports and activities. I learned from debating and organising events . . . We should give more room for students, not just in universities, but in primary and secondary schools, to take part in extra-curricular activities.' If that is what most people want, he says, there will be corresponding changes in areas including curriculum, examination and university entry requirements. A prominent banking executive, Mr Leung concedes the commission can only help the Government to 'do the right things'. 'Doing the things right is the implementation side. Therefore reform in the Education Department is crucial,' he says, referring to its reform package announced last week. Among others things, it re-defines the department's role not as a 'controller' but 'facilitator' and 'regulator'. Reforms are in the pipeline to ensure the standards of school headmasters. 'Steps are being taken in the right direction. The Education Department might not be able to cope if the changes are too drastic.' The department has been described by Mr Leung as one of the 'three mountains' making reforms difficult. The appointment of a new head, Fanny Law Fan Chi-fun, he says, will give new impetus to reform. The other two stumbling blocks are teachers and head teachers, he believes. 'I'm convinced most of the teachers and headmasters do not want to spoil their students. It's often the system that makes them believe they can't do anything. 'I think most of the teachers will welcome some form of benchmarking. If you want others to respect you, you have to enhance your standards.' A new promotion system for teachers may help cultivate a sense of belonging among the profession, he says. 'Most important, society wants to change.' Mr Leung admits parents may, however, feel worried about the possibility of too many changes to the system. 'The fault does not lie with them. They want their children to receive a good education. We have to tell them what is good education through our reforms. 'Most of them do know what is good and the present system is problematic. It's a tragedy that they have no choice but to force their children to accept it.' Appointed to head the commission less than a year ago, Mr Leung says members have to keep reminding themselves not to make judgments based solely on their own experience. 'Some say just go back to the past and we'll be OK. James Tien [Pei-chun, the Liberal Party chairman and legislator] said what we need is to adopt the elite system from the past. 'Society has changed . . . We're no longer an industrial economy, but a knowledge-based economy. Everybody has to be a knowledgeable worker if they want to survive. 'We will be fighting against the brightest group of competitors.'