Dame Stephanie Shirley

Prior's Court Foundation is a registered charity which provides residential care and education for young people with severe autism and complex needs. The specialist school, young adult provision and training centre is one of the most advanced of its kind with a worldwide reputation for excellence.

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 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 two pupils arrived in September 1999 and the school was officially opened by The Princess Royal on 23 May 2000.

Over the years Prior’s Court grew to support many more young people and following the addition of an adult learning centre in 2011, it now supports around 90 pupils from aged 5 – 25, for up to 52 weeks of the year. The school has developed its own specialist ‘Prior Approach’ (based on autism best practice and methodologies) to meet the complex needs of the young people in their care and provide a toolkit of skills for life. It has the latest technological equipment, and magnificent facilities to teach art, music and sport, communication and social skills throughout the waking day as well as supporting vocational learning in horticulture, animal husbandry - even developing an on-site bakery, Bread and Beyond, to create pathways to future employment.

The entire site is filled with the finest examples of British art, craft and design – some of it specially commissioned – gifted by Dame Stephanie to the school. Its 55 acres of grounds and woodlands feature eye-catching sculptures, including William Pye's Mother and Child water sculpture and Leonardo's Dog by Dame Elisabeth Frink.

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.

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

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