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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 2 Teacher - Maternity cover

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Year 2 maternity cover, startin...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

Upper KS2 Teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Upper Key Stage 2 teacher ...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + ?110 - 130: Randstad Education Reading: English Teacher ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments