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.

Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Commonwealth GamesEntertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
The actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game