Dubai: The UAE school operator Taaleem is already scripting the next few chapters of its growth story, with talks having been initiated for a possible entry into Saudi Arabia.
“These are tentative discussions with government entities, and we have had some pretty concrete discussions around Riyadh (locations),” said Alan Williamson, CEO of the Dubai-headquartered entity with a DFM listing.
“But it has to be right for our shareholders - and it has to be approved by the Taaleem Board of Director.
It’s been a year since Dubai’s second-largest private school operator went public. Since then, Taaleem has been enjoying record student intakes for 2023-24 academic year. And 40 per cent of this was from competitor schools.
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Even as it keeps an eye on a Saudi entry, the group is pursuing growth in UAE’s premium education market with new schools and acquisitions.
As far as GCC-wide expansions are concerned, Williamson said the group will consider every opportunity, including those for acquisitions. “Our priority is to ensure it falls within our expertise, whether it’s in public-private partnerships, the American curriculum, or premium schools,” he added.
Committed to UAE
In the UAE, Williamson says there’s still ample room for expansion. They are also focusing on early-year education and expanding their involvement in public-private partnership (PPP) agreements with schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Before going public, Taaleem outlined a five-year growth plan to add 8,000- to 10,000 UK curriculum seats in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This includes the construction of two Dubai British Schools (DBS) in Jumeirah and Mira districts. Plans are in motion for another two schools, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, in the super-premium and upper-range premium categories, set to open in 2025-26. The locations are yet to be revealed.
Taaleem annually invests Dh10 million to Dh15 million in renovating existing schools to maintain their ‘outstanding’ status in terms of resources and facilities, as per KHDA and ADEK frameworks.
The operator remains open to acquisition opportunities as well, exemplified by their acquisition of the Jebel Ali School in 2022 for Dh10 million, using funds received from the IPO.
“We successfully raised Dh750 million on the Dubai Financial Market, and we’re already putting that capital to work,” the CEO added. “Each of the new schools typically requires investment ranging from Dh150 million to Dh200 million.”
“As a schools group, we enjoy robust cash flows, and it’s worth noting that in this industry, you receive your cash upfront on Day One. Consequently, we do not face any cash flow challenges, and our company maintains very low leverage. We currently have ample funding to fulfil the promises outlined in our IPO prospectus.”
More schools, more teachers
The staff strength has grown by 4.5 per cent year-on-year from the 2021-22 to 2022-23 academic years. Taaleem on-boarded 500 teachers for its premium schools this year. “This growth is in the premium schools category only,” said Williamson. “And we recruited an additional 500 for the PPP segments. Around 1,000 additional teachers joined Taaleem this year by September 1.”
When asked about the possibility of budget considerations, Williamson said Taaleem’s experience operating PPP schools has shaped its approach. “The Dubai Schools project (the PPP with the Government of Dubai), for instance, was designed to offer education within the range of Dh25,000 to Dh30,000 (annually),” said Williamson.
In contrast, Taaleem’s Dubai British School operates at an average price of around Dh55,000. “Now, with the Dubai Schools open to both expat and Emirati students, Taaleem is actively involved in this sector and plans to continue its growth.”