Dame Stephanie Shirley

Prior’s Court School Conference, Opening Address

Opening Address
Prior's Court School Conference

25 October 2011

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Good morning Chairmen, ladies and gentlemen.

Organisations which survive have a sense of direction – a vision of where they are going. Each of us here is privileged to be associated with Prior's Court in one way or another. My role is as Founder Patron and, since today is part of the Shirley Lecture series, it's my pleasure to start this conference off.

Of all the things I bought for Prior's Court (including start-up losses, the project cost me over £30 million) most were chosen by professionals. My most personal input was in the art collection here, selected to meet the spiritual needs of the pupils and the staff who make everything happen.

Work is chosen to be inspirational, hopeful, developmental, calm and serene rather than stimulating or challenging. Usually one artist per area. Deliberately so as to have different moods, changing scenes, as a pupil transitions over the many years that they may spend here.

People are surprised to see quality work here. And at its good condition after now twelve years. One work which was damaged (actually several times before we moved it) underlined the problem pupils have in the simplest of transitions: from outside to inside.

Today's focus is Transitions. But transitions are by their nature of short duration. I want also to speak about the long-term. Another of my projects – sponsoring the first-ever History of Autism – includes descriptions of educational facilities going back to the time (not so long ago at that) when children with autism were classified as "ineducable".

In the 60's the Rudolf Steiner schools (who were accepting pupils with autism) referred to curative education – an anglicised version of what Hans Asperger was doing in Austria. Prior's Court does not refer to curative education but that surely underlines the ethos here.

Sybil Elgar who died less than five years ago was the UK's first autism-specific teacher. Montessori trained, she was horrified by the lack of provision and in 1965 started her own school in the basement of her home.

It was she who found – counter to mainstream educational thought at the time – that a structured approach to teaching was the best route to learning for children with autism. Later she became the founding principal of the National Autistic Society's first school (mainly day with some residential). Her ideas were adopted by Eric Schopler, who developed TEACCH which we use here. And she inspired many others.

Another specialist school, Sutherland House, was opened in 1970 by what is now the Nottinghamshire Regional Society for Adults and Children with Autism.

Europe's first autism-specific residential school opened in 1974. And a year later UK legislation opened up education for all children, every single child in the land.

Worldwide there are a lot of cranky teaching methods for pupils with autism. The reputable ones have much in common: pupils spend many hours each week having social, pre-planned-in-detail, structured lessons.

Let me summarise the three separate strategies: to calm, to order and to give a voice:

  • ABA sometimes known as Lovaas therapy: to calm;
  • TEACCH, to order and
  • PECS to give a voice

In an ideal world, the three would be combined.

And Bangor University is developing such an emerging method called Active Support which is being piloted by the adult support service Kingwood, the very first charity I set up. All aimed to improve people with autism's ability to engage with their surroundings.

Every pupil is different – indeed may well have different types of autism: some regressive, some not; some associated with epilepsy; some not. Each has a different personality, different learning style and preferences. "Eclectic" schools such as this therefore have staff trained to mix methods.

The big change in recent years is the proliferation of special schools run for profit. Generally well-endowed and with more narrow a pupil profile than local authority or charity schools. Nothing wrong with that but the emphasis is inevitably on the finance.

How does a charity school like Prior's Court fit in?

The daily experience of caring for my late son Giles Millington Shirley – yes, that's where the House names come from – was my life for 35 years and he of course was the model for the pupil profile here: autism and learning disability, with complex needs.

* * * * * * *

Adolescence is a time of huge hormonal and physical changes. Magnetic Resonance Images show there are also brain changes associated with puberty. Think back to how you felt in those turbulent years – that rite of life's passage – the biggest transition most people ever make. How might puberty affect children with autism? Their transition from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood is also a challenge for we who care.

Vulnerable people bring out what is best in most of us most of the time. But the constant demands can be acutely stressful and unmask our own weaknesses. A culture of teamwork is important. Teachers, carers, parents, we live vicariously, taking satisfaction from the development of those we nurture.

The British Institute of Learning Disabilities has a Quality Network aimed to help young people going through transition to find out what is important to them and for the future. There's also the international partnership headed by the Hungarian Autism Foundation's HANDS project (Helping Autism-diagnosed Teenagers Navigate and Develop Socially)

* * * * * * *

We opened Prior's Court in 1999 and I am hugely proud of it. The Adult Learning Centre so reminds me of the Kingwood support charity I set up for Giles – and now 50 other adults like him – when he came out of the locked hospital ward he had lived in from age 13 to 24. Congratulations and thanks to everyone for the quality and consistency of the education and care provided. I wish everyone here continued good progress.

Especial good wishes go to Ruth Over's team and the first six students of the newly opened Young Adult Provision.

I'm confident that Prior's Court can continue to develop with seamless transitions to further education and adult services.

Looking ahead, there will be challenges all round. As part of the autism sector's young history, what will you add? What will you take with you as you transition to your next career move? What will you leave behind?

Reference: Feinstein, A. (2010) A History of Autism – Conversations with the Pioneers. Wiley-Blackwell ISBN 978-1-4051-8653-7.

Copyright October 2011

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Tel: +44 (0) 1491 579004
Fax: +44 (0) 1491 574995
Email: steve@steveshirley.com
Website: www.steveshirley.com

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