Dame Stephanie Shirley

Prior's Court School is an exceptional school for children with autism and is one of the most advanced of its kind in the world.

It was inspired by a visit Dame Stephanie made to the Higashi School in Boston in the USA in 1997. Based on Daily Life Therapy, a Japanese philosophy which views physical education as an essential bridge to learning and social development, the school was achieving impressive results, with over 97 per cent of leavers going into proper employment, and able to enjoy a social life and a greater degree of independence. On her return to England Dame Stephanie discovered that neither the educational authorities nor any charity was prepared to establish such a school in the UK, so she resolved to undertake that task herself and to create a 'beacon' school for children with autism.

The result was Prior's Court School, near Newbury in Berkshire, acquired and funded with a £15m donation from The Shirley Foundation in 1998. The original grade II* listed Queen Anne House was extensively refurbished, new purpose-built classrooms and accommodation added, and specialist staff hired and trained. The first pupils arrived in September 1999 and the school was officially opened by The Princess Royal on 23 May 2000.

The school opened with 2 pupils and now has over 60 pupils from 5 – 19 years. Under the direction of Robert Hubbard, its Founding Principal 1998-2010, the school has developed the ‘Prior Approach (based on the best of Daily Life Therapy, TEACCH and other autism therapies and best practice) to meet the very special educational, care and medical needs of its pupils. It has the latest technological equipment, and magnificent facilities to teach the children art, music and sport, communication and social skills as well as skills useful for future employment, such as domestic science, horticulture and animal husbandry.

It also has an uplifting atmosphere which benefits both the staff and the children, thanks to Dame Stephanie's interest in contemporary art and passion for excellence. The entire school is filled with the finest examples of British art, craft and design, a magnificent collection – some of it specially commissioned – gifted by Dame Stephanie to the school. Its 55 acres of grounds and woodlands also feature eye-catching sculptures, including William Pye's Mother and Child water sculpture and Leonardo's Dog by Dame Elisabeth Frink.

An Adult Learning Centre and residential provision for 20 students opened in September 2011.

Now that the school is firmly established and structured to maintain its very high standards, and thus its pre-eminent position, Dame Stephanie has curtailed her active involvement in the school however she remains a frequent and very welcome visitor.

The Art of Prior's Court School (ISBN 0-9507212-2-0) reveals the unique story behind the £3 million collection of contemporary art, craft and design that Dame Stephanie has loaned to enhance the daily lives of everyone associated with the school. To order a copy of this limited edition send a cheque payable to Bohun Gallery, for £100 plus £7.50 per book p&p, to Bohun Gallery, c/o Studio One, 7 Chalcot Road, London NW1 8LH. £25 of each sale will be donated to the Prior's Court Foundation.

For further information please go to www.priorscourt.org.uk.

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