The School of Babel

A teaching miracle in a tough Sydney school, a 1-hour film documentary by Robert Cockburn

The triumphant teenage story of Sydney’s tough Tempe High School was revealed in our award-winning documentary The School of Babel. Then, a desperate experiment between children, 83% from non-English speaking backgrounds, and staff changed and saved one of Australia’s most violent and under-performing schools against every obstacle.  See trailer below

It has powerful lessons for so many countries now facing a surge in migrant populations and how to cope in a positive way.   

What happened to Tempe’s classes of ‘93 now in their 40s and with children of their own?    Will their children do as well as their parents?

And what happened to Australia which today suffers from stagnant and declining literacy rates, even in wealthy schools, that one education commentator calls ‘a national disgrace’?  

Did Tempe’s poor migrant community discover the secret of teaching English, and was it thrown away with rigid new management and teaching methods, and by racism?  

‘He took a risk!’ said Prof Courtney Cazden, head of education at Harvard University, who came to Tempe when few outsiders dared to visit.  

The School of Babel began as a challenge to America’s Harvard University to witness the astonishing teaching experiment in this tough Sydney school. It became the most enjoyable film I’d ever made.


Defying logic and the authorities, the principal of Sydney’s violent non-performing Tempe High School took the ‘crazy’ step of cutting English lessons to teach migrant students their own languages – and English results shot up! Peter James faced every imaginable obstacle to teach Tempe’s mainly migrant students - 83% from non-English-speaking backgrounds – in a suburb notorious for poverty and violence.


Stuck at the end of Sydney Airport’s main runway, half of lessons were drowned in a roar of low-flying jets. Yet, with everything against them, James with his staff, students and parents all worked to turn classes into a daily experiment based on something one of the teachers had heard: students can’t learn a second language, in this case English, until they know their first language properly. James was desperate. He feared there would be a murder in the school. It worked. Incredibly, together, they took their school from third bottom in New South Wales into the top half of Higher School Certificate results. University entrance became a reality.

James broke the rules to create Australia’s biggest language school. He got away with it because few visitors ever dared step inside Tempe High. Even the local MP was afraid to visit.  Tempe was variously called the ‘prison’, the ‘dustbin’. Student Bashir Eldebel was told Tempe High was for ‘rejects from other countries.’

But Harvard’s head of education, the renowned Prof Courtney Cazden did come to Tempe High to find out what was reducing the violence and changing the notorious school into a harmonious education achiever. Cazden saw a teaching miracle that involved and changed the lives of Tempe and its students, staff and families.   


James explained to her that Tempe had 17% of students from English-speaking backgrounds and 83% from myriad language groups including Macedonian, Greek, Arabic, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Pacific Island and Indonesian. There were refugees. Many couldn’t speak their own language let alone learn English. The school’s home-grown idea utterly changed their lives. James got around NSW Education Department English-teaching regulations by disguising language teachers behind their other disciplines: a maths teacher who taught Japanese; an economics teacher who taught Chinese. 


Says one student, ‘You get better at English if you keep on talking your language. It does! It helps you!’ A girl bullied at her old primary school says, ‘I came here and it was absolutely fantastic!’ Another beams, ‘At Tempe I feel very free!’


As a film The School of Babel was full of innovations in 1993. It kicks off, literally, with 16 year-old Rolla kissing her Koran at the end of prayers, then stripping down to her sports gear to kick off a school football match. 


Daring to do the opposite of what logic and the authorities dictated, James saw languages not as the ancient biblical curse of Babel alive and well in a racist country, but as a cure for the school’s educational and social problems. And he went further. James told Cazden: ‘In English where we weren’t performing well. So, I reduced the amount of time out of English, English classes: cut approximately 16 per cent off…’ 

A stunned Cazden repeated this, ‘…16 per cent less time of English!?’ James smiled and went on, ‘… and that time redistributed to other places where English is used but not in the English classroom. And went into the community languages which were built up from Greek only to the eight languages - five community languages - that we’re running now. 


Tempe’s exam results showed a steady improvement in English over four years reaching the state average for in English the Higher School Certificate (HSC). James, ‘For so many, with only a year or so in this country from non-English-speaking backgrounds, we’re quite thrilled with the progress.’

Cazden stared, ‘That’s really remarkable.’

Prof Cazden told me: “Now on any common sense understanding of education it would seem crazy to reduce the time of the English curriculum in a school that is 83 per cent non-English-speaking students. And yet, the factual result, evidently, is improved English achievement. As well as what the students are getting in a way of more advanced intellectual development in their home languages and in writing. But it’s still a controversial question.’   

There is a mystery element to the Tempe High experiment. By accident, James put into practice a radical linguistic theory which academics and philosophers had only dreamed of. 


‘He took a risk! He sure did take a risk!’ Cazden said, ‘What made him think it was a risk that might well pay off?’ Smiling at herself, Cazden said, ‘What in his background as an ex-chemistry teacher!? – I mean he wasn’t a Greek teacher or an Italian teacher, he’s a chemistry teacher! – what made him think at this school at this time that was a risk that was likely to pay off?’ 


Peter James was more of an educational and social alchemist, without intending to be. A Tempe student received a commendation in the Sydney Morning Herald short story contest.


The School of Babel proved to be an unlikely success, breaking SBS TV ratings records and winning a NSW Education Award, the first for a television program. Prime Minister Paul Keating’s wife Anita Keating took the film on her Australian museum tour of the country. The local MP who never before set foot in the school asked if he could hand out the prizes at the next Tempe High presentation night. 


By now famous and respectable, in 2010 Tempe High was chosen by the Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard to launch her ‘My School’ website to display the comparative academic performances of all schools. The irony, in this competitive new age of rigid management and analysis in the classroom, is that My School would chart the flat-lining and decline in student literacy. 


Even as we filmed in 1993 the clouds were gathering. The Tempe miracle didn’t last. In the Bible the ancients were punished for their ambition with the ‘curse’ of speaking different languages, removing their power of communication and progress. Just as Tempe High found some success the school suddenly faced state government cash and staff cuts to language and English programs. The federal Australian government withdrew free English lessons for new migrants. At Tempe, the very people unlocking the secrets of using their languages to learn English were to be denied its benefits. 

Robert Veal from the Disadvantaged Schools Program warned, ‘To cut back now when we are on the brink of success and change would be disastrous. The effects for Australia in the long term would devastating.’

Tempe High Deputy Principal John Bailey said, ‘It would be devastating for the school. We really do need that little bit extra.’ English teacher Sharon Ross said, ‘That’s a great pity because it’s been a lot of years, a lot of trial and error… and you’re starting to see here some success and it would be a pity to lose that.’ 


Today there is condemnation of the decline in literacy in Australian schools over the past 20 years. On the ABC education commentator Jennifer Buckingham said, ‘The levels of literacy and numeracy among Australian school students are a national disgrace.’


At the same time Language teaching has been cut in Australian primary and high schools. Visiting languages teacher Katharina Bense wrote in EduResearch recently, ‘The time and importance allocated to language learning within the Australian curriculum are just not good enough. In contrast, students in other OECED countries continue to study one or more languages for another two years until the end of Year 12. Students in Australia will spend only half as much time on language learning as most students in other OECD countries.’


Is Australia’s decline in literacy levels connected to the decline in its language teaching? What was thrown away at Tempe High 25 years ago? 


For while Tempe and its high school was shunned at home, outside Australia others saw its experiment in multiculturalism very differently. In School of Babel we meet academics in Britain, Israel and Japan looking to Australia to solve their own problems with racism. In Tokyo Prof Masimo Sekine laughs as confesses that he was sent by the Japanese government as a under-cover spy to learn how Australian multiculturalism worked to help Japan change to engage with globalisation.  


The lessons developed at Tempe and with the Disadvantaged School Program were going to education departments and schools around the world. By cutting language lessons at school, has Australian lost its best chance to becoming the ‘clever country’ it once promised to be, and can a return to language teaching save its students’ declining levels of literacy? 


Robert Cockburn, TRAC Productions Copyright 2018

TRAC Producer Robert Cockburn