Inspired to build a better future for autistic children

Prior's Court was the inspiration of Founding Patron Dame Stephanie Shirley CH. Her vision and passion to build a better future for autistic children became a reality when Prior's Court opened in 1999.

To mark Dame Stephanie's 90th birthday in September 2023, Prior's Court released this film about her life:

A pioneering entrepreneur

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 plc (now part of the Sopra Group) 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.

Philanthropy and the founding of Prior's Court

After retiring in 1993, Dame Stephanie 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). Her focus on philanthropy is based on her strong belief in giving something back to society. Her main interests are autism (her autistic son Giles died age 35 in 1998) and  IT.

Her charitable Shirley Foundation, which spent out in 2018, was one of the top 50 grant-giving foundations in the UK with well over £50m grants given. It initiated and funded a number of projects that are pioneering by nature, strategic in impact and significant in money terms - including Prior's Court.

Following a visit to the Higashi School in Boston, Dame Stephanie was inspired to create a ‘beacon’ school for autistic children. 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 young people arrived in September 1999 and the school officially opened by the Princess Royal on 23 May 2000.


Dame Stephanie was the first woman Master of the IT livery company; the first woman President of the chartered British Computer Society; and the UK’s Ambassador for Philanthropy in 2009/10. She is also much in demand as a keynote speaker at international conferences.

Dame Stephanie was appointed the Companion of Honour at the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2017 - a special award recognising those who have made a major contribution to the arts, science, medicine, or government over a long period of time. The Companion of Honour is limited to just 65 people at any one time, with current members including Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Elton John and Sir David Attenborough.

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 CH, Prior's Court Founding Patron

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