Dr Deborah Ralls

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow

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Research interests

Research interests 

  • Education polices and practices (curriculum, pedagogy & governance) that support the development of  inclusive urban places 
  • Building democratic decision-making relationships between children and young people (CYP), policymakers, schools and communities
  • Developing opportunities for CYP and policymakers to build a shared understandings of a place in all its dimensions, and to position CYP as key partners in urban decision-making processes 
  • Urban social solidarity economies & inclusive growth
  • Artistic and participatory research methods 


Current Research Project 


My research focuses on the development of new concepts in the study of urban social solidarity economies and education theories, policies and practices. I have been awarded a 3 year Early Career Fellowship (2018 – 2021), funded by The Leverhulme Trust. My research project, Redefining Education for an Urban Social Solidarity Economy: Becoming Relational, examines the interconnections between policy, institutions and communities in assessing attempts to construct an educational dimension of a more inclusive and collaborative urban economy.

I am particularly interested in relationships between urban places, education institutions and their communities. Whilst my PhD focused on a single institution in a UK urban setting, I have developed and expanded my work to consider an international comparative study of educational institutions in urban contexts in Barcelona, Berlin, New York and Rio de Janeiro. I am directly engaged with a diverse range of collaborators across all 4 cities (Barcelona, Berlin, New York and Rio de Janeiro), including economic and education city policy makers, university academics, community organisations, school teachers and school leaders. 

The project Redefining Education for an Urban Social Solidarity Economy: Becoming Relational considers how more relational approaches to policy, governance, curriculum and pedagogy impact on relationships, not only between institutions and their stakeholders but can positively impact more widely on democracy and social justice in urban places. The research explores how different participants are conceptualising and/or operationalising the links between a social solidarity urban economy and the development of education policy/ governance/curriculum or pedagogy. I examine policymaker, institutional and stakeholder relational identities, highlighting possibilities for changing the existing dynamics of power and positionality in the urban education context. 

 My research uses visual and artistic methods and participatory mapping techniques to create participant artefacts that foreground the voices of children and young people. This approach is an attempt to better understand the lived realities of children and young people’s urban education experiences and the extent to which they feel that there has been an attempt to make their city/urban neighbourhood more relational through education polices and practices.  

In the latter stages of the project, children and young people in the 4 cities will be supported to invite policy makers, local government officials and educationalists to a small discussion event and exhibition of their artefacts. This will act as the final focus group in each city, bringing together the professionals responsible for developing and overseeing the education initiatives and those who have been engaged in these projects. These events will provide an opportunity to better understand how the education initiatives have impacted on the lived realities of local community members and the development of relational citizenship in urban cities. This research will thus provide a rich description of how participants are not only redefining, but exploring, elaborating and experiencing the theory in practice of education for a social solidarity urban economy, whilst identifying possible effects on participants’ economic or citizenship behaviour in the urban city. 






My doctorate, Understanding Engagement in a Co-operative School Setting: An Exploration of School-Stakeholder Relationships (2017), considered how schools and stakeholders have, over the past few decades, been repositioned as ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ within the changing English education landscape of policy reforms and how this affects approaches to school-stakehoilder engagement.


The thesis analyses the extent to which the relationships between school and different stakeholders are moving towards a more ‘relational’ model of engagement. The wider policy context is also considered, revealing how school-stakeholder relationships are affected by policy framings of ‘what counts’ as engagement.


Findings show that whilst the nature of school-student relationships appears to be developing in ways that are more relational, school-parent relations seem to be more unilateral in nature, in spite of school having made the decision to ‘become Co-operative’. Whilst the research reveals the challenges faced when tensions emerge between differing policy, school and stakeholder understandings of engagement, it also examines the spaces of possibility that occur for engagement to be experienced through processes of democratic governance and collective endeavour.


The thesis thus surfaces the complex interrelationship between policy and school engagement practice, illuminating the shifts in different school-stakeholder relationships that occur as a result of policy change.




Research and projects