Dame Stephanie ShirleyPrior's Court is indebted to Founding Patron Dame Stephanie Shirley whose vision of a centre of excellence for children with autism became a reality when Prior's Court School opened in 1999.

Dame Stephanie is a highly successful entrepreneur turned ardent philanthropist. Having arrived in Britain as an unaccompanied child refugee in 1939, she started what became Xansa on her dining room table with £6 in 1962. In 25 years as its Chief Executive she developed it into a leading business technology group, pioneering new work practices and changing the position of professional women (especially in hi-tech) along the way.

Since retiring in 1993, she has served on corporate Boards such as Tandem Computers Inc. (1992-7), the John Lewis Partnership plc (1999-2001) and the European Advisory Board of Korn/Ferry International (2001-4). But her focus has been increasingly on philanthropy based on her strong belief in business people giving something back to society. Her main interests are autism (her autistic son Giles died age 35 in 1998) and making better use of IT in the voluntary sector. She is also much in demand as a keynote speaker at international conferences.

Her charitable Shirley Foundation is now one of the top 50 grant-giving foundations in the UK with £50m grants given over the past seven years. It has initiated and funded a number of projects that are pioneering by nature, strategic in impact and significant in money terms. Following a visit to the Higashi School in Boston, she was inspired to create a ‘beacon’ school for children with autism. In 1998 Prior’s Court was acquired and funded with a £15m donation from The Shirley Foundation. 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.

Her current activity is focused on Autistica in the UK and internationally, dedicated to fund research into the causes of autism and hence halve the global cost of the disorder by 2020.

Learn more about Dame Stephanie Shirley's extraordinary and inspiring life in her memoirs, Let IT Go.

Bringing up a son with autism made me only too aware of the lack of appropriate provision. When I was inspired to set up the Foundation in 1998, I aimed to address this shortfall and to provide a specialist school which would offer the best education and support for pupils severely affected by their autism. Only a specialist approach would enable them to access their strengths, reach the potential blocked by anxiety and confusion and so, with support, make the most of their lives and achieve a level of independence. The expertise and dedication of the specialist team at Prior's Court ensure this. I am enormously proud of the achievements of both pupils and school staff and share their hopes and plans for the future.

Dame Stephanie Shirley, Prior's Court Founding Patron