Crispian Strachan is well aware of the angst caused in the charitable fee-charging education sector by the public benefit requirement. But the former chief constable of Northumbria Police thinks some of the concerns are unfounded.
"People have been distracted by whether bursaries should be cross-subsidised by school fees," he says. "Parents don't like the idea that they are being taxed to subsidise the fees of someone possibly not much worse off than them."
But the bursaries offered by the Royal Grammar School Educational Trust, which helps pupils at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, don't add a penny to the school's fees.
The trust, which is independent from the school and has no role in its governance, was set up in 1978 to help pupils, alumni and teachers of the school. But Strachan says it became clear that the trust would be most usefully employed concentrating on providing means-tested bursaries for current pupils.
So a fundraising drive targeting school alumni and local philanthropists was launched in 2002. Strachan took over as chair of this fundraising sub-committee in 2005 after retiring from the police. "I was only 55 and I was looking for active things to do and ways to continue helping society," he says. The trust now provides bursaries to 100 of the school's 1,200 pupils, with about 50 paying no fees.
The trustees hope that, because 40 per cent of the bursaries are provided by income from the school's capital assets, the fund will count towards the school's public benefit. But Strachan says the fund is not just a box to be ticked to satisfy the Charity Commission. "We do it because we think it is appropriate," he says. "If the commission agrees with it, that is great."
He says it is important that children from poor backgrounds have access to the school, partly because it can help them "get away from disadvantage", and partly so that the school's more privileged pupils gain a sense of "how the other half lives".
Strachan says the recession has hit the trust's fundraising efforts, but he is confident the relationships it has built with donors will survive the squeeze. He even hopes to increase the proportion of pupils on bursaries towards 20 per cent. "But if the money doesn't come in, we'll keep going anyway because we have courage and faith," he adds.
He says independent schools "absolutely should" provide public benefit, and agrees with the commission that means-tested bursaries are an important part of it: "Otherwise the purchase of education for your children would be an exercise in selfishness."
As for schools that fear means-tested bursaries will bankrupt them, Strachan is nonplussed. "Some schools may justifiably be worried about money," he says. "But our day fees are £9,327 a year, which is a third of what some schools charge, and we find it possible to fund bursaries. I don't know what others spend their money on."