MOVES to scrap the Russian language Higher in Scotland's schools have been attacked by the Kremlin's most senior envoy to the United Kingdom.

Dr Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian Ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland, urged ministers to protect the qualification, describing it as culturally significant and vital to our future economic competitiveness.

The intervention comes after the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) decided to axe Higher Russian after 2015 because too few pupils were sitting it.

However, figures published last summer show there was a 44 per cent increase in entries in 2014, with number rising from 36 to 52. Although the number is still relatively small, there are now more entries for Russian Higher than at any time since 1992.

The concerns of Dr Yakovenko have been backed by senior academics and Scottish politicians who called for a U-turn by the SQA.

Dr Yakovenko said: "I was quite surprised to hear that the Russian language is to be downgraded in the school curriculum in Scotland with the discontinuation of the Higher qualification. My first thought was that it could not be true.

"Why would Scotland opt to narrow the choice of foreign languages, undermine the quality of language skills and subsequently reduce the numbers of those who speak foreign languages?"

Dr Yakovenko said the move would have an adverse effect both on the prospects for individual learners and the wider competitiveness of the Scottish economy.

He said: "Think of Russia as a market with a population of 147 million, with a growing middle class that has a taste for high-quality products, which is exactly what Scotland offers.

"Russia is also a natural destination for Scottish trade which accounts now for up to £269m annually. If you add this to the neighbouring countries that Russia has a customs union with you get a single market of 172m customers that Scotland has access to.

"Russian language skills would be of utmost importance for entering this appealing market and doing business successfully there. One should not also forget that Russian is still lingua franca in many other countries both in Europe and Asia as well - and it may open more doors there than English."

Commenting on the recent increase in demand for the language, he added: "Without a Higher qualification this demand may prove fruitless for those who want to pursue the language at a more advanced level.

"It will also discourage students who want to study a language at university from choosing Russian. I hope that pragmatism and the openness for which the Scots are known will prevail in this case and the Russian Higher will be retained."

His views were backed by leading Russian language academics with Dr Claire Whitehead, head of the Department of Russian at St Andrews University, saying: "It is a matter of great regret that it is being phased out as an option for students. My view is that it is a very short term approach and a quite limited view on the value of Russian, or any minority language.

"The Scottish Government should be saying to young people that the learning of any language is a hugely important skill and this is totally the wrong signal to be sending.

"The message that will be drawn from this is that learning Russian is not important to Scotland and in the current political context that seems to be very misguided."

Dr Margaret Tejerizo, a senior lecturer in Russian at Glasgow University, added: "I have a very strong view that Russian is a very exiting language and it opens the door to Russian culture, film, music and literature.

"We now have so many undergraduates who want to study the Russian language that that we cannot accommodate them all and they all see Russia as an exciting place to go. It is shocking young people cannot have access to this wold language in Scottish schools today through a Higher.

"Scottish schools have a long tradition of Russian language learning and it is so sad that it is now gone and we are depriving young Scottish people of a very attractive and intellectually stimulating subject."

Despite the protests, the SQA has refused to consider a rethink on the scrapping of the qualification, suggesting study further down the school and as part of other subjects is sufficient.

A spokesman said: "Russian will continue to be taught through our Modern Languages for Work Purposes Units at a variety of stages, some of which are of a comparable standard to Higher. In addition, Russian is also available as part of the Languages for Life and Work Award."