Charles Brian Cox was born on 5 September 1928 in Grimsby. His mother contracted tuberculosis two years after he was born, and suffered a prolonged illness before her death in 1938. During this time Cox's father (who worked as clerk to a coal merchant) was forced to pay a maid to look after the house and to care for Brian and his older brother Derek, leaving the family with little money to spare. Cox's father married again in 1942.
Cox attended Nunsthorpe Elementary School and moved on to Wintringham Secondary School in Grimsby after passing his eleven-plus exam. School provided an escape from the unhappiness Cox experienced at home during his mother's final illness and the turbulence of his father's second marriage. Literature also gave him another invaluable escape route: he was an avid reader throughout his childhood, making regular visits to Grimsby Public Library. He read Great Expectations and David Copperfield at the age of fourteen, identifying with Dickens's motherless heroes. He continued his own private reading programme over the next few years, and began writing verse of his own.
At the age of fourteen he decided on a career as a teacher of English, so he stayed on at school to study in the sixth form. His Higher School Certificate results were disappointing, but he was nevertheless determined to obtain a place at Cambridge, and succeeded in winning an open exhibition to Pembroke College. Before he could take up this place, he faced two years of compulsory military service. His high marks in IQ tests meant that he was assigned to the Royal Army Education Corps and became a sergeant, with responsibility for teaching other draftees as well as men on the permanent staff. He was demobilised in March 1949, and spent the next six months as a temporary supply teacher at a local school before taking up his place at Pembroke College in October.
He enjoyed his time at Cambridge, where the ideas of F.R. Leavis still dominated thinking about literature and criticism. During his second year he met A.E. (Tony) Dyson, who would become a lifelong friend. Dyson, who was fiercely intellectual, came from a similar lower-middle-class background to Cox and the men had much in common. Both went on to achieve first class degrees, and subsequently returned to Cambridge for postgraduate work. As time went on, however, Cox - who was working on Henry James - began to question the value of this research which was unstructured and undertaken in isolation. He found a greater sense of fulfilment in the teaching he undertook for the Workers' Education Association during the same period.
After two years of postgraduate work (which ultimately gained him an MLitt), Cox obtained a post as assistant lecturer at Hull University, a small but lively institution with only around 80 staff. Fellow lecturers included Richard Hoggart and Malcolm Bradbury, and Philip Larkin was appointed Librarian there in 1955. Shortly after taking up this post Cox married Jean Willmer; he had known Jean at school, and had met her again at a dance in Grimsby when he was an undergraduate. The couple had three children between 1955 and 1960.
As a lecturer, Cox strongly believed that teaching was more important than research, a conviction he shared with Tony Dyson, who by this time was lecturing at the University of Wales in Bangor. Both men recognized, however, that they also needed to publish work and keep abreast of their subject. They subsequently jointly edited seven collections of essays, and Cox contributed numerous articles to academic journals, as well as full-length works on Joseph Conrad. His first full-length critical study, The Free Spirit, appeared in 1963.
Through Philip Larkin Cox first encountered George and Jean Hartley who ran the Marvell Press in Hull, and he began to take an active interest in contemporary poetry, something which had been entirely lacking in his traditional Cambridge education. He was to become influential in publishing new poetry himself when he co-founded the literary journal Critical Quarterly with Tony Dyson. The immediate catalyst for the journal was a British Council Summer School held in Cambridge during 1958. A lecture by G.S. Fraser which relied largely on literary anecdotes outraged Cox and Dyson, who strongly believed in the moral importance of literature. They determined to establish their own journal which would publish new poems, short critical articles and regular features with a strong emphasis on recent and twentieth-century literature. After mustering support from an eminent honorary committee of critics and writers, the first issue of the journal appeared in 1959. Over the years it became highly influential in publishing poetry by Movement poets such as Philip Larkin, and drawing widespread attention to the work of other new poets such as Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and R.S. Thomas. Initially administered from Hull University and produced by Hull Printers, Critical Quarterly headquarters moved to Manchester University in 1966, where Cox took up a Chair in the English Department. In addition to producing the journal itself, the Critical Quarterly organisation arranged conferences, published poetry supplements, and from 1962 produced a twice-yearly journal for teachers entitled Critical Survey.
The foundation of Critical Survey reflected Brian Cox's lifelong interest in the teaching of English and teaching methods generally. He spent the academic year of 1964-5 as Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. He found this an enjoyable and rewarding experience, and particularly appreciated the willingness of students to participate actively in seminars, something their British counterparts were more reluctant to do. He also witnessed the first student protests which were to become widespread in both America and Europe during the next few years.
By the time of his return, the secondary school system in Britain was in the process of being shaken up: Anthony Crosland's Circular 10/65 compelled local authorities to submit schemes for new comprehensive schools. Cox viewed himself as a 'moderate progressive'1 who agreed with some of the new education reforms, but disagreed with their more extreme manifestations, and with the 'egalitarian ethos'2 which came to dominate views on education. He opposed the new 'progressive' teaching methods, and he also disapproved of the increasing demands and protests made by university students. His views found their articulation in the first 'Black Paper'. The spring 1969 issue of Critical Survey was entitled Fight for Education, and was given over entirely to articles on education and the Labour government's educational policy. Contributors included a Conservative MP, writers, academics, and heads of secondary schools. Most of them shared concerns about the breakdown of traditional authority in schools and higher education, and the Black Paper (a pun on government White Papers) addressed three broad issues: the introduction of free expression in schools; the Labour Party's plans for comprehensive education; and student demands to participate in university government. Advance orders for the pamphlet ran into several thousand, and it was extensively reviewed. Despite some initial sympathy, however, it came to be widely attacked in the newspapers and the views expressed in the pamphlet were condemned as anti-liberal and extremely right wing.
The autumn 1969 issue of Critical Survey was published as a second Black Paper, with a similarly impressive group of contributors. This was widely condemned by the press but achieved large sales, and Cox determined to publish further Black Papers, and to produce manifestos for publication in newspapers. The first of these, 'Freedom in the Academic Community', appeared in the Times on 23 November 1970. Signed by 154 members of university staff, it addressed issues relating to the functions of universities and rights of university members, criticizing in particular the 'sit-in' as a form of protest, and the appointment of students to executive bodies in universities. This manifesto was quickly followed by Black Paper Three, published on 27 November 1970.
Subsequent Black Papers were published in 1975 and 1977, although Critical Survey itself ceased publication in 1973. The Black Papers marked a shift in British attitudes towards education; Cox felt that they expressed the hidden feelings of many ordinary teachers and parents, and broke taboos among educationalists and politicians who had previously been silenced by the apparently overwhelming support for progressive education. The Black Papers continued to provoke debate through the 1970s; Cox and Dyson were frequently invited to speak at meetings and Cox also gave numerous television and radio interviews on educational issues.
Cox's other major project in the 1970s was the foundation, with Tony Dyson and others, of the pressure group, the National Council for Educational Standards (NCES). Established in 1972, the NCES soon had over 1500 associate members, and Cox took over as Secretary and Treasurer in the mid-1970s. Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s the group organized regular conferences on educational issues, and promoted many of the views on comprehensive education which had been expressed in the early Black Papers. Wide press coverage of their activities meant that this small pressure group achieved a lot of influence.
The final two Black Papers were more restrained in tone than their predecessors, and by this time there had been a general shift of opinion on education. James Callaghan's Labour government began to rethink their views on comprehensive schools, and Cox hoped they would be open to new ideas, such as the establishment of a national curriculum, more structured schooling, and a fight for high standards of literacy and numeracy. In 1978 the NCES was registered as a charity, which meant that it could not be allied to any one political party. The organisation continued to do valuable work: a new journal, the Bulletin, was established; a major research project on exam results was undertaken; and a number of pamphlets were produced in which the exam results of comprehensives were shown to be worse than those in areas still operating on the old grammar and secondary modern system. The move to charitable status, however, had divided opinions within the organization, a situation which was exacerbated when some prominent members began to associate themselves increasingly with right-wing groups. After the Education Reform Act of 1988 brought into law some of the central doctrines promoted in the Black Papers and by the NCES, Brian Cox resigned as President; no one else volunteered to take over the role and the organization folded.
Brian Cox had played an important role in shaping the 1988 Act. In 1987 he was invited to join the Kingman Committee which was set up by Kenneth Baker, the Secretary of State for Education, to establish a model for the teaching of the English language. After the Committee's report had been published, Cox was invited to chair the National Curriculum English Working Group, established to advise Kenneth Baker on the structure of English teaching in the National Curriculum. The Group's report, known as the Cox Report, was published in 1989. The Report (which was accepted by the government after some amendments) divided the English curriculum into three broad areas: speaking and listening; reading; and writing; with an equal weight given to each in assessment.
During the early 1990s, however, there was a significant shift to the right in the Conservative government's views on education. Brian Cox was concerned that the Cox report was largely unavailable through bookshops, so in 1991 he published Cox on Cox, a volume containing the complete report edited by Cox himself, along with a detailed commentary on its political background. By 1993, Cox found himself opposing the Conservative government which had previously accepted his ideas and incorporated them into policy. He was at the head of opposition to the attempted rewriting of the National Curriculum in English by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education.
The Cox Report's stress on the importance of speaking as a part of the assessment process reflected one of Cox's deeply held beliefs, dating back to the time he spent in America where he noticed a marked contrast between the volubility of American students and the reluctance of his Hull students to articulate themselves in seminars. During the early 1980s, he was involved in organising the Campaign for the Verbal Arts, along with Alan Young and Anne Cluysenaar. The Campaign's manifesto was published initially in the Times Higher Education Supplement in late 1983 and reprinted in the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of Critical Quarterly in 1984. Signatories to the manifesto argued for the inclusion of the verbal arts in the English curriculum at all stages of education. Verbal arts encompassed not only verbal skills, but also the art of writing in the widest sense, with a particular emphasis on creative writing. Cox tried to incorporate these ideas into the recommendations set out in the Kingman and Cox reports.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, while playing such a prominent role in the education debate, Cox also continued his work as general editor of Critical Quarterly, only standing down to take a less active role in 1989. In a related venture, he founded the Poetry Centre at Manchester University in 1971, with the help of a grant from the Arts Council. Many poets - including W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and John Betjeman - gave well-attended readings in subsequent years. In 1972 the Poetry Centre received a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, which enabled Michael Schmidt to be appointed as Special Lecturer in Poetry at the University. He came to Manchester from Oxford, bringing his Carcanet Press operation with him. The financial assistance provided by Cox helped to keep the press afloat during these early years. In 1973 Cox also helped Schmidt to launch the twice-yearly journal Poetry Nation (later to become PN Review).
Alongside his other responsibilities Cox continued his successful career as an academic. This saw him take up visiting professorships, fellowships and lectureships at various institutions, including Sir George Williams University, Montreal, the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and the University of the South, Tennessee; he also lectured for the British Council in India, Brazil, Hong Kong, Korea and France during 1975-1984. Back at home in Manchester he was Professor of English Literature at the University from 1966 to 1976, when he was made John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature. He held the post of Dean in the Faculty of Arts during 1984-6, was Pro-Vice-Chancellor during 1987-91, finally being appointed Emeritus Professor at the University in 1993. He was awarded a CBE in 1990.
The 1990s did not see a decline in Cox's activities. Having published his acclaimed autobiography, The Great Betrayal: Memoirs of a Life in Education in 1992, he went on to hold visiting professorships at King's College, London (1994-9) and Sheffield Hallam University (1994-8). He chaired the Arvon Foundation during 1994-7, and from 1994 to 2000 he was chair of the North West Arts Board. In January 1998 he took over again as poetry editor of Critical Quarterly.
One of the things which has given him the greatest satisfaction during his long career, however, is his own writing of poetry. Having largely abandoned attempts to write his own verse during his early days at Cambridge, Cox regained his confidence and began writing poetry again during the late 1970s. This resulted in two well-received poetry collections during the 1980s: Every Common Sight, published in 1981, and Two-Headed Monster, published in 1985. His Collected Poems appeared in 1993, and he continues to write today. His poetry has been praised for its wit and satire, its vivid evocation of incident and adventure in both public and private spheres, and its celebration of marriage and abiding love. His most recent collection, Emeritus, was published by Carcanet Press in 2001.