The BSEC Mena conference revealed some interesting work on offer but it's a question of how to get a foot in the door

The school building programmes in the Middle East unveiled at this week’s BSEC Mena conference showed that while there are plenty of interesting opportunities for UK firms to win work in the sector there is no low hanging fruit.

Programmes such as the Abu Dhabi Education Council’s (ADEC) plan to build 300 schools, all of them governed by the latest thinking on school design and incorporating sustainable elements, could clearly benefit from British expertise - and they are already, with firm's like Studio E, Buro Happold and Broadway Malyan already having won key contracts.

In particular, the designs of schools planned for the region bear all the hallmarks of the UK’s new academies and schools being built under BSF. The large atria, rooms filled with natural light and spaces that can be expanded and contract in order to allow different teaching techniques all feature prominently.

And locals appear to welcome UK firms. Saudi Arabia is rolling SR4.2bn worth of school building work under its King Abdullah Project for General Education Development over the next six years, and the project director said at BSEC: “We are very open to learning from international best practice."

An encouraging sign and hence why UK consultants and contractors with school building expertise are selling their wares in the Middle Eastern education market. Firms including BDP and Wates are pitching to win work on Abu Dhabi education projects, for example.

However, with so many firms trying to win education work, and with some of it already awarded, it will be difficult for newcomers to break in. There are also some complaints about the speed of the school building programmes. One consultant questioned when ADEC would actually start construction.

Another complaint is the level of fees that are actually on offer. Reports suggest that ADEC only wants to pay out 5% of the project cost in fees to go round all the consultants.

The organisation ran a design competition recently to produce model school designs. The three consortia that won the competition included UK architects Broadway Malyan and Studio E. There have been no further developments so far, however, and ADEC says that while it has invited contractors to pre-qualify it still deciding whether to appoint one contractor for the entire programme or several.