We work at the intersection of evidence-informed practice and user-centred design. We have deep respect for both evidence and the experience and expertise of practitioners, young people and families. We think public systems and services can be more impactful when they are considered together.


We also work at the intersection of public system reform and service design and improvement. System change efforts that lose sight of the services children and families use will have limited impact. Conversely, services designed without consideration of wider system conditions are unlikely to succeed. So we think systems change and service design should go hand-in-hand.

“We help to change public systems SUCH AS child welfare, Emotional Well-being, and primary health, so that they work more effectively for the people using them and more efficiently for the people running them.”

- Tim Hobbs, CEO


Types of work we do 

Strategy Development  

We work with local authorities, health systems and communities to co-design bold, ambitious and achievable strategies for children and families. We’re informed by data, evidence and community needs and context.

Public System Reform

We use systems thinking approaches to understand the dynamics driving systems like children’s social care or mental health. This informs redesign so that services work more effectively for the people using them and more efficiently for the people running them.

Service Design

We work with our partners to design new services for children and families or adapt and improve on existing provision. We blend evidence-informed, data-driven approaches with a grounding in user-centred design. Co-design is central to our work.

Rapid Cycle Design & Testing

We support our partners to test, refine and improve services for children and families. We take a co-designed, data-driven approach to improvement, and we love to work in messy, real-world conditions.

Data Analytics & Visualisation

We gather, synthesise and analyse data to inform all our work. We create engaging, interactive visualisations to bring data to life, and help our partners make data-driven decisions.

Evidence Reviews

We undertake rapid and comprehensive reviews of evidence and literature. These create the evidential foundations for our work and those we support. We ensure key insights are easily digestible and actionable.

“the lab have helped transform the work that we do”

- Director, Ariel Trust

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our history

The research charity started life in Kings College, Cambridge, over 50 years ago – this timeline gives an overview of our rich history and influence.



The Dartington Social Research Unit is established in Devon, following a move from Kings College, Cambridge. Its Directors include Royston Lambert and Spencer Millham.

Its pioneering research into education results in the publication of ‘The Hothouse Society’ in 1968.


Research into education continues and the focus of the Unit widens from to include all children in care. From 1971, government funding allows the unit to investigate the plight of young offenders.

Publications include ‘After Grace, Teeth’ and ‘Locking Up Children’.




‘Lost In Care’ is published in 1986, providing a ground-breaking overview of the outcomes of children entering the care system.

The Unit’s work informs the 1989 Children’s Act, which legislates for the primacy of children’s needs and wellbeing.


The Centre for Social Policy established in 1995, bolstering the Unit’s academic links. Research in Practice follows in 1996 (becoming independent in 2001), helping those who work with children and families use evidence in their practice.

Turning research into practical tools is an increasing focus, resulting in ‘Going Home’ and ‘Matching Needs and Services’, used by over half of English local authorities.




The Unit’s work refocuses on prevention, early intervention, targeting of services, and rigorous experimental evaluation. The Unit supports a series of local government and philanthropic interventions.

The Journal of Children’s Services is launched by the Unit in 2007.


The Unit supports Graham Allen MP to produce his independent report on Early Intervention, which leads to the setting up of the Early Intervention Foundation.

In September 2017, a new incarnation of the Unit is launched: the Dartington Service Design Lab, focussing on improving children’s outcomes by improving the services and systems that support them. Led by Tim Hobbs, the team works remotely across the UK, with a base in Buckfast Abbey, near Totnes.