A FORMER UK government minister has backed calls to save a flagship Russian language qualification.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who served as UK Foreign Secretary between 1995 and 1997, said it was vital to protect the current Higher in Russian, which is to be axed next year.

Edinburgh-born Mr Rifkind, who is still a Conservative MP, spoke out after the issue was raised by Dr Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian Ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Dr Yakovenko urged Scottish ministers to protect the qualification, describing it as culturally significant and vital to Scotland's future economic competitiveness.

Two years ago 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 with number rising from 36 to 52 - the highest for twenty years.

Mr Rifkind said: "It would be sad if this change went ahead. Russia, as current events are showing, remains a vital country and it remains very important for the Russian language to remain well-known in Scotland and the UK as a whole."

There was also concern from opposition politicians. Liz Smith, children and young people spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservative Party, described the SQA move as "ill-judged".

She said: "There is a clear willingness on behalf of those who support the development of the language to do more at a time when the curriculum is supposed to be giving greater flexibility to pupils and teachers.

"I think this issue has to be looked at again and I am very supportive of any moves to ensure pupils have the option to study Russian in Scottish schools progressing to Higher and beyond."

Jenny Carr, chairwoman of the Edinburgh-based Scottish Russian Forum, also urged the SQA and the Scottish Government to act.

She said: "The growing absence of Russian language and culture from the Scottish school curriculum gives the erroneous impression that Russia is not relevant to us.

"Current political events in Ukraine and elsewhere should underline the importance of understanding the cultural background to Russian actions and the geopolitics of the area.

"Russian is also one of the major European languages and cultures, with Russian literature and musical heritage well known in the West."

However, despite the protests the SQA refused to consider a rethink, suggesting study of Russian further down the school and as part of other subjects was sufficient.

A spokesman said: "Russian will continue to be available 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."

Writing in The Herald, Dr Yakovenko said he was "surprised" to hear that the Russian language was to be downgraded in the school curriculum in Scotland.

He said: "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.

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."