Professor Brian Cox: English scholar, poet and editor of 'Critical Quarterly' whose Black Papers sparked debate on education

Brian Cox was a gifted teacher, a superb editor, a skilled administrator and a considerable poet. In another life he might have been a vice-chancellor or perhaps a junior minister for education. However his commitment to the teaching of English, both reading and writing, meant that much of his working life was devoted to raising the standard of debate about education in general and the teaching of English in particular.

Cox was born in 1928 in the town of Grimsby in Lincolnshire, then a huge fishing port, to a poor family hovering on the borders between the working and the lower middle class. From the first, education was an absolute value and Cox's autobiography (The Great Betrayal, 1992) provides a vivid account of his schooling at Nunsthorpe elementary and Wintringham Secondary schools. Cox was ambitious and self-possessed enough to put himself in for the scholarship exams to Cambridge and to win an exhibition to read English at Pembroke College in December 1946.

Before going up to university, spells of teaching in the Army during national service and as a supply teacher meant that Cox had a surprisingly wide knowledge of teaching and teaching methods. Cambridge provided two further experiences: the inspiration of his undergraduate course in English, which provided both close supervision and great freedom, and the sterile years of graduate study on Henry James for which he was inadequately prepared and inadequately taught.

In 1954 as Cox was preparing to marry, he and his future wife Jean decided that he would apply for a job at any university in Britain except Aberdeen (too far north) and Hull which, as they were both from the neighbouring town of Grimsby, they knew well. Thirteen unsuccessful job applications later, Cox applied for and obtained an Assistant Lectureship at Hull. Hull provided Cox with a stimulating set of colleagues: Richard Hoggart, Malcolm Bradbury and Barbara Everett all taught there in the Fifties, and, above all, from 1955 there was the presence of Philip Larkin as librarian.

At Pembroke Brian Cox had formed an extremely close friendship with A.E. Dyson and together they elaborated a shared position that accepted the Leavisite claim that literature demanded the most serious moral attention, but rejected the sectarian dismissal of contemporary writing. At the end of the Fifties they felt sure enough of their own tastes to start a small magazine, Critical Quarterly, as a focus both for critical writing that shared their estimation of the Leavisite legacy and for contemporary poetry.

The magazine was wildly successful, publishing a whole new generation of critics such as Raymond Williams, Frank Kermode, David Lodge and Tony Tanner. Even more successful was the poetry, which included Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin, and the winner of one of their first poetry competitions, Sylvia Plath. This success spawned a small business as circulation climbed to 5,000 and the magazine sponsored successful weekend schools aimed at sixth-formers. This development led in turn to the setting up of a second magazine, Critical Survey, aimed more directly and practically at sixth-form teachers.

It was while discussing a special issue of this magazine looking at contemporary development in education that the idea of a "Black Paper" (in contrast to government White Papers) was born. In its initial conception the Black Paper was mainly concerned with the student sit-ins then common in British universities. Cox had spent a year at Berkeley in l964-5 and had moved from supporting the Free Speech movement to condemning its tactics of disruption. As the issue took shape, however, a second focus was added: the failures of comprehensivisation and theories of progressive education.

The combination was explosive and for the next six years, and further Black Papers, Cox was often in the news as he defended his positions, now backed by a formidable array of evidence that comprehensive education was leading to a more unjust and unequal society.

The slightly hysterical focus on student occupations soon disappeared and subsequent Black Papers marshalled arguments and facts to illuminate a very confused national debate. By 1975 it might have been possible to see Cox heading for a junior role in Thatcher's first government but that year his elder brother, suffering from incurable cancer, committed suicide and, in the subsequent emotional turmoil, Cox decided both to intensify his commitment to writing poetry and to focus his political efforts on the teaching of English.

Those efforts culminated in his membership of the Kingman committee in l987-8 and then chairing his own committee on the teaching of English in 1989. The Cox Report marks a real achievement in bringing genuine intelligence to bear on the questions of how a standard language should be taught. While stressing the importance of the teaching of the standard, the Cox Report also emphasised the importance of valuing non-standard forms of the language and allowing pupils to explore their own linguistic resources.

These sophisticated and humane recommendations, which also included Cox's long-time commitment to the teaching of creative writing, did not suit a Conservative government that had a fixation on teaching traditional grammar. In an extraordinary move, Kenneth Baker, Secretary of State for Education, who had commissioned the report, decided that the three final chapters of recommendations would be published ahead of the 14 chapters that elaborated the complex arguments the committee had considered.

The Cox Report is a high-water mark in the attempt to reform the traditional teaching of English in the light of current linguistic knowledge. The Government, however, had no interest in its recommendations and refused to provide the money for the provision of necessary teaching materials. Cox was most disappointed that the recommendations he had fought so hard for were not implemented. He did, however, take some solace from the fact that the epithet of "reactionary", awarded to him by the tabloids after the publication of the Black Papers was, in the aftermath of the Cox Report, replaced by "woolly liberal".

Cox had moved to a chair at Manchester University in 1966 and he was active as a university administrator both as Dean of Arts (1984-86) and Pro Vice-Chancellor (l987-91). These administrative skills were put to good use in retirement when he served both as chair of North West Arts (1994-2000) and as chair of the Arvon Foundation (1994-97). In all these roles and in handing on Critical Quarterly to a younger generation of editors, Cox saw himself as someone whose purpose was to develop the possibility of aesthetic experiences for others.

Few men can have enjoyed their retirement more, and his pleasure in it and in his family is recorded in the poetry, which had become more and more important to him. The first two volumes, Every Common Sight (1981) and Two-Headed Monster (1985), were followed by Emeritus (2001) and My Eightieth Year to Heaven (2007). The poetry records simple events and emotions: love of landscape and family, the shock of the onset of death. Cox's use of language and form is deceptive and at first reading the poems often seem slight, but read together and read again the poems declare real ambition. The writing urges a constant pleasure in the simple continuities of life and art, pleasures only sharpened by the awareness of mortality.

Colin MacCabe

Charles Brian Cox, English scholar, poet, editor and educationist: born Grimsby, Lincolnshire 5 September 1928; Assistant Lecturer, then Lecturer, in English, Hull University 1954-66; Co-editor, Critical Quarterly 1959-2008; Professor of English Literature, Manchester University 1966-76, John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature 1976-93 (Emeritus), Dean, Faculty of Arts 1984-86, pro vice-chancellor 1987-91; Co-Editor, Black Papers on Education 1969-77; Chairman, National Council for Educational Standards 1979-84, Presiden t 1984-89; Chairman, National Curriculum English Working Group 1988-89; CBE 1990; FRSL 1993; Chairman, North West Arts Board 1994-2000; Chairman, Arvon Foundation 1994-97; married 1954 Jean Willmer (one son, two daughters); died Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire 24 April 2008.

News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people

Sport
nflAtlanta Falcons can't count and don't know what the UK looks like
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg
music

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

News
The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

Telecoms Engineer - Telecoms Administrator - London - £26,000

£26000 per annum + 25 days holiday & further benefits: Ashdown Group: Telecomm...

Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: We are seeking a confident...

Senior Data Analyst - London - £38,000

£30000 - £38000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Data Analyst - Lon...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London