The largest provider of private education in England has struck a deal with a cigarette importer to build new schools.
Global Education Management Systems (Gems) and the Alokozay Group, both based in Dubai, plan to create the network of fee-paying schools in Afghanistan. The investment has been welcomed by children's charities but questioned by anti-smoking campaigners.
Gems operates 13 independent schools in England and its directors include Mike Tomlinson, chair of the Government's working group on 14-19 education.
The Alokozay Group describes itself as a "leader in the cigarette industry" and is the sole distributor for cigarettes made by the Korea Tobacco and Ginseng Corp in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Gems and Alokozay, whose managing director Abdul Alokozay is an Afghan national, hope to open the first of the fee-paying schools in Kabul in September 2005.
Hugh MacPherson, chief operating officer of Gems, said the project was "a small step towards achieving a brighter future for the children of Afghanistan".
He said: "This project reiterates our commitment to spread globally the message of holistic education by instilling ethical values and principles that serve as guiding tools for the next generation to grow into socially responsible citizens."
But the deal was questioned by the anti-cigarette group Action on Smoking and Health.
A spokeswoman for the lobby group said the partnership seemed "inappropriate, at the very least" and that the group hoped that health education in the schools would not be affected. Parents at Bury Lawn, a Gems-operated school in Milton Keynes, have also expressed concern about the ethics of the deal.
But the children's rights charity UNICEF said that new schools needed to be built in Afghanistan urgently.
Edward Carwardine, communications officer for UNICEF Afghanistan, said:
"The demand for education is immense in Afghanistan as children, especially girls, have been denied their right to schooling for so long."
Gems is managed by the Indian businessman Sunny Varkey and is a subsidiary of the Varkey Group, which works in healthcare as well as education.
A Gems UK spokeswoman said Alokozay's dealings in tobacco were only part of its business and the connection between the Varkey Group and Alokozay was believed to have developed as they both worked with hospitals. She said that building the new schools in Afghanistan was "a brave thing to do".
She said: "I'm not saying that (Gems) are being saints, but it is not the most stable environment."
The tobacco giant BAT Industries was criticised in 1996 when it emerged it had spent more than pound;2 million sponsoring technology colleges in England, even though the schools insisted they would never promote cigarettes.
Gems is advised by a board which includes Sir Michael Bichard, who led the Soham inquiry, James Sabben-Clare, former head of Winchester school and Elizabeth Passmore, a former director of inspection at the Office for Standards in Education.
The advisory board is chaired by Michael Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools. Returns filed by Gems reveal that he is also one of the firm's directors.