Priors Court Founding Patron, Dame Stephanie Shirley CHPrior’s Court exists because of one extraordinary person's desire to build a better future for autistic young people with complex needs, after her own experiences with her autistic son.

More than 20 years on from opening in 1999, the experience, vision and passion of our Founding Patron, tech entrepreneur Dame Stephanie Shirley CH and her son Giles, continues to profoundly influence what we do and why we do it.

Prior’s Court was inspired by the experience of one parent and one autistic child. Each young person who has joined Prior’s Court since has been placed at the heart of everything we do. The experience we have delivered from day one has always been entirely individual and celebrates each young person for their own personal achievements.

A history of Prior’s Court

Prior’s Court opened in September 1999 with two pupils and 28 staff members. By our 20th anniversary in September 2019, we had more than 600 staff members supporting more than 80 young people.

The stated aims of Prior’s Court at the time we opened included respect for the individuality of each pupil and the development of individual strengths. To this day, these remain core principles.

Opening and early days – 1998 to 2004

Priors Court building renovation in 1998Following a £15m building and refurbishment project of the Prior’s Court site, Prior’s Court School opened on 13 September 1999. An official opening by HRH The Princess Royal followed on 23 May 2000.

In the immediate years following, our methodology, the Prior Approach, which is based on expertise and experience began to receive wider recognition as educational standards were commended by Ofsted and the first Prior’s Court Conference was held. Meanwhile, research projects with leading UK universities began.

New additions were made to our provision including employing a physical education specialist in 2000 and the creation of an all-weather sports track in 2004 (both due to the huge range of positive impacts a healthy, active lifestyle brings); and the opening of the Jubilee Centre in 2003 to provide new classrooms, an IT suite, and facilities for woodworking and pottery.

Extending our provision – 2005 to 2010

By 2005, pupil numbers stood at 59 with 232 staff employed. A year later, provision was extended to establish 44-week placements, in addition to the existing 38-week offer.

On-site provision continued to develop with:

  • An off-site residential home opening in nearby Hermitage in 2005 for older students to extend their independent living skills and offer a model for supported living.
  • In 2007, the opening of two new residential homes on-site, Todhunter and Fleming. These spacious buildings were designed to support the growing independence of older students.
  • In 2009, a purpose-built and specially adapted dining room was opened.
  • In 2010, work began to convert three on-site cottages into a new Young Adult Provision, supporting young people from the age of 19-25 years.

Our vocational learning provision also continued to develop. In 2006, we celebrated our first young person to gain a supported off-site work placement – off-site work placements continue to be a core ambition we have for the young people we support. A year later, we opened our Countryside Learning Centre to provide a base for learning around animal care.

2008 Dame Stephanie Lecture Series - Autism conference speakersWork continued for Prior’s Court to help shape best practice in the autism sector as:

  • The Dame Stephanie Lecture Series was launched in 2008 with a conference called Autism 2020 featuring renowned experts in the field.
  • In 2009, Prior’s Court staff worked with other organisations to create a specialised training DVD around autism for Berkshire schools.
  • In the same year, we joined with 19 other organisations across the UK for World Autism Awareness Day to campaign for a change in approach to how government supports autistic people.
  • And in 2010, The Sir Jules Thorn Training Centre opened on-site from which to provide expert training to our own staff, families of our young people, and other parents and professionals in the autism sector.

Expanding further – 2011 to 2016

PriorThe Sir Jules Thorn Training Centre hosted its first five-day TEACCH course in 2011, the same year that our 52-week provision began to be offered.

By 2013, three houses in the grounds of Prior’s Court had been converted to residential provision – Henley, Beechcroft and Summerhill - while the three Young Adult Provision cottages of Dove, Robin and Bradbury were also completed.

The Young Adult Provision cottages project came about after a successful multi-million-pound fundraising appeal, with fundraising campaigns and significant donations also resulting in the opening of:

  • A fully equipped horticulture classroom in 2014
  • A multi-sensory environment, and an outdoor play area, both in 2015
  • An outdoor music classroom, featuring specialist multi-sensory installations, in 2016. In the same year, our first wheelchair accessible boat was also launched in a project with The Wheelyboat Trust and Burghfield Sailability.

Elsewhere, we were presented with Artsmark Gold status for our the quality of our art and cultural education (2016), “Steve the Robot” joined our teaching team as part of our approach in using pioneering technology within our education provision (2016), and ‘good’ Ofsted ratings for our care and education departments continued.

Aiming high and going beyond – 2017 to 2020

A series of ambitious projects have been delivered in recent years to continue to provide the facilities and expertise to offer the young people we support the best care and education, but also to give them access to extraordinary opportunities.

In 2017, Prior’s Court and band Low Island released a single called Let Me Shine, with young people and staff performing on the track. In 2018, a group of young people travelled to the world-famous Abbey Road Studios to re-record the single. A documentary about this journey premiered in 2019.

Bread & Beyond fundraising appeal launch at London Stock Exchange2017 had also seen a visit to London with staff and young people opening the market at the London Stock Exchange to launch a fundraising appeal for our ground-breaking commercial bakery. In 2018, the bakery opened on-site as a social enterprise to provide vocational learning for the young people, with its products going onto sell at outlets across West Berkshire.

2017 was a busy year with four new residential homes as The Seasons opened. These homes, specially designed for persons with sensory sensitivities, went onto win the Judges’ Special Award at the 2018 British Construction Industry Awards.

Also in 2018, Ofsted rated Prior’s Court School as ‘outstanding’ while our residential services received a ‘good’ rating with ‘outstanding’ features. Meanwhile, in the same year, we were named Educational Establishment of the Year at the Education Resources Awards.

The first ever Let Me Shine festival was held in 2018 to provide an on-site music festival experience for young people, their families and our staff members.

In 2019, HRH The Princess Royal returned to Prior’s Court to mark the 20th anniversary of our founding. In the same year, we welcomed our 200th student and the Prior’s Court Research Board was formed to further cement our place at the forefront of best practice research in the autism sector and implement the findings of such research.Prior Insight logo with eye

Our ground-breaking Prior Insight tool was also launched in 2019. Using the power of big data analysis, Prior Insight provides us with an exciting tool to ensure young people at Prior’s Court have more good days, and help us to shape the wider autism sector.

The launch of Prior Insight demonstrates Prior’s Court continued commitment to building brighter futures for autistic young people with complex needs, and utilising technology, both passions of our Founding Patron, Dame Stephanie Shirley CH.

Covid and post-Covid recovery - 2020 to now

Like all organisations, Prior's Court was hugely impacted by the Covid pandemic. But, thanks to the dedication of staffing teams, Prior's Court never closed during the pandemic, remaining open to provide vital support to our young people.

And like all care organisations, the combination of Brexit, Covid and the cost-of-living crisis impacted staffing and recruitment at Prior's Court. But innovation once again came to the fore with new ideas to drive recruitment including a minibus transport to work service for staff and an annual staff awards scheme.

Staffing challenges have not impacted the quality of service provided and outcomes for autistic young people with complex needs:

young people and staff hold up sign which says outstanding

Elsewhere, in 2022, a fundraising appeal was launched for an innovative, bespoke Performing Arts Centre on the Prior's Court site, to allow more autistic young people to access the transformational power of the arts.

In 2023, a powerful video documentary outlining one family's support for the arts centre appeal won a Charity Film Award

More about us

Read next