Building on the 50-year heritage of the Dartington Social Research Unit, the Lab seeks to break new ground in the application of high-quality science applied to policy and practice.

Purpose, Approach & Values

Our purpose

We challenge and inspire radical reform of systems and services to improve the lives of children, families and communities.

Our approach

We work with organisations and public systems that are willing to try new things.

We collaborate with leading scientists and researchers.

We fuse science-based and user-centred design approaches applied to public systems and services.

We experiment and share our methods, failures and successes along the way.

Our values

We are curious and questioning.

We approach things from different angles and perspectives.

We aim to develop elegant responses to complex challenges.

We are methodical, consistent and impartial when appraising a challenge.

We take an analytical approach to design solutions.

We exercise our best judgement, carefully weighing up the available information.

We actively listen to others because we don't think we know all the answers.

We balance our strengths and weaknesses with purposeful partnerships to achieve more that we could alone.

We think the users of services and systems, coupled with good science, holds the key to effective practice.

We are confident about the potential we have to affect change.

We are comfortable saying things that other may find uncomfortable.

We are open to challenge and willing to challenge others.

Who We Work With

We work with those that are willing, in partnership with us, to try new things in order to improve the outcomes of children, families and communities.

Local Authorities

Primarily children's services and public health

Health Systems

Primarily focused on mental health

Trusts and Foundations

Helping to shape strategic investments

Service Providers

Working to design and improve services

Scientists & Researchers

Collaborating to explore and test new methods

We are always interested to hear from highly motivated individuals who may be interested in an internship with the Lab. Please email with a covering note telling us what you believe you can bring to the Lab, and what you might hope to gain from an internship experience, together with your latest CV.


Our History

The research unit has operated in many different formulations over its our 50-year history: starting life in Kings College, Cambridge then moving to Dartington in the late 60s, with offices subsequently established in London, Glasgow, Madison and San Sebastien. This timeline provides a brief overview of the organisation’s rich history and influence on policy and practice.

  • 1960s

    In 1962 Royston Lambert – the originator of the research unit – takes up the prestigious Ermine Fellowship at Kings College, Cambridge. He establishes an ambitious programme of research into boarding school education.

    The Hothouse Society is published in 1968, a seminal study providing unique view on the system from a child’s perspective that had never been produced before.

    In 1968 Royston is invited by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst and Michael Young to become the Headmaster of the famous progressive school – the Dartington Hall School.

    Royston accepts and the Dartington Social Research Unit is established in High Cross House as part of the Dartington Hall Trust. Leadership of the Unit is passed to Spencer Millham.

  • 1970s

    Other books stemming from the education-focused research include: A Manual to the Sociology of the School (1970) and The Chance of a Lifetime? (1975). In 1971 the Department for Health and Social Security establishes the Unit as a core-funded DHSS Research Unit in Child Care. Studies focus on policy and practice related to young offenders, secure provision for children and residential care.

    In 1973, a formal link is established with Bristol University Dept. of Social Policy and Social Work, via longstanding supporter, Professor Roy Parker. Publications emerging from era include: After Grace-Teeth (1975) and Locking Up Children (1979). In 1975 the Unit moves from Highcross House to the Courtyard, on the Dartington estate.

    During the late 70s the focus of research expands beyond residential childcare to all children in care, especially the problems of maintaining links between them and their families.

  • 1980s

    In 1986 Lost in Care is published – an influential study about the outcomes of children entering the care system.

    The Unit facilitates a programme of work that informs the Children Act 1989, bringing a legislative primary focus on children’s needs.

    Key outputs from this era include: Issues of Control in Residential care (1981); Children’s Homes (1983); Foster Home Breakdown (1987); Access Disputes in Child care (1989).

    In 1988 the Unit moves from the Courtyard to Foxhole on the Dartington estate.

  • 1990s

    In 1994 Spencer Millham retires and is succeeded by Roger Bullock. The Unit moves from the Courtyard to Warren House, on the Dartington estate.

    The Unit further expands its focus to examine child protection, resulting in the publication of the ‘blue book’ in 1995: Child Protection: Messages from Research.

    A number of new studies in child care and education are also published, including: Going Home (1993); A Life Without Problems? (1995); Making Residential care Work (1998); Secure Treatment outcomes (1998); and Children Going Home (1998).

    In 1995 the Centre for Social Policy is established – bolstering academic links for the Unit and providing a multi-disciplinary forum for enquiries in social policy.

    In 1996 Research in Practice is established and remains part of the Research Unit within the Dartington Hall Trust until 2001 when it became an independent department of the Dartington Hall Trust.

    In 1998 the Unit supported the establishment of the Policy Research Bureau in London, a research institute that was a separate department of the Dartington Hall Trust. It closed in 2007.

    In the late 1990s and early 2000s the Unit explores new approaches to the application and dissemination of research, including the establishment of Dartington-i and series of ‘practice tools’. Matching Needs & Services went on to be used by over half of English local authorities.

  • 2000s

    Michael Little becomes Director in 2002 and refocuses work on prevention, early intervention, assessment of children’s needs and rigorous experimental evaluation.

    In 2004 the Unit becomes an independent charity, distinct from the Dartington Hall Trust. For three years it remains a tenant of Warren House on the Dartington estate.

    This decade sees the Unit support a series of major local government and philanthropic investment strategies in evidence-based prevention and early intervention, in the UK and internationally. 40 Years of Research in Child Care and Policy and Practice is published in 2005, reviewing past contributions of the Unit and considering what more still needs to be done.

    In 2006 the Unit moves from the Dartington Hall Trust estate to nearby property on the River Dart. In the same year, Prevention Action is launched, reporting in a journalistic style the latest developments in prevention science.

    A year later, The Journal of Children’s Services is launched under the joint editorship of Nick Axford and Michael Little.

  • 2010s

    The Unit is jointly run by Louise Morpeth and Michael Little between 2010 and 2016. Offices are established in London and Glasgow as work on early intervention, prevention and evidence-based practice gains momentum.

    The Unit supports Graham Allan, MP, to produce an influential and independent report on Early Intervention which leads to the establishment of the Early Intervention Foundation.

    Investing in Children is produced in 2012: a web-based tool examining the financial costs and benefits of different types of evidence-based practice.

    In 2016 leadership is passed to Louise Morpeth and the next 18 months sees a radical transformation of the charity, readying it for the unpredictable social, economic and political times.

    In September 2017 the new incarnation of the Unit is launched: the Dartington Service Design Lab. Led by Tim Hobbs, the Lab returns to a narrower focus of enquiry: system reform, service design and information design, underpinned by fusing science-based and user-centred design principles.

    By early 2018 the team is distributed across the UK, working flexibly and remotely from Devon, London, Manchester and Glasgow, with a growing team of associates operating across the UK. A new administrative base is established at Higher Mill, Buckfast Abbey, further upstream on the River Dart.

See Also