IT was inevitable in the febrile atmosphere surrounding the referendum on independence that the idea of teaching Scottish studies in secondary schools would be controversial, but if ever there was a time for this proposal, this is it.

The Scottish population is about to make the most important collective decision in the history of the nation and although the introduction of Scottish studies will be too late for those with a vote in 2014, a population that knows, and cares about, its own culture and history is good for the future of Scotland – whatever the outcome of the poll.

Education Secretary Michael Russell made a similar point last year when he first mooted the idea of Scottish studies. The subject would, he said, lead to a better informed population. But the problem with the idea for some was that it came from the SNP. The suspicion was that the secret motive for the plans was to increase feelings of nationalism that would benefit the SNP in a referendum or election.

It should come as a reassurance that the concept of Scottish studies is not such a new one, and certainly does not belong to the SNP. In the early 1990s, the Conservative Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth suggested a stand-alone Standard Grade along similar lines. Even away from party politics, there has long been criticism that the school curriculum does not include enough that is uniquely Scottish.

This is certainly true in the case of the English Higher. In 2001, the requirement for Scottish literature to be a compulsory element of the course was abolished, which meant that, in theory, a student could get through the English course without studying a single Scottish writer. On history too, there is no official requirement for Scotland to be part of the Higher course – although teachers passionate about the subject will more often than not include it.

As part of the move to Scottish studies, this situation has now, thankfully, been reversed. From 2014, English Higher students will have to study at least one Scottish writer and Scottish history will have to be part of the history course. In this way, it is hoped Scottish studies will inform all the subjects across the curriculum rather than being a stand-alone subject – and that is the right way forward for schools that are working with the Curriculum for Excellence, which has similar across-subjects aims.

Scottish studies will have to be kept in the proper context,of course. Scotland – whether we remain part of the UK or not – is part of a wider cultural landscape and teachers of the subject must also be wary of being too positive or jingoistic.

As Professor Murray Pittock of Glasgow University points out in The Herald today, Scottish studies must mean looking at Scotland's questionable qualities as well as its good.

If all of this is kept in proper balance, there is no reason why Scottish studies cannot be a positive element of the curriculum. Scottish pupils should leave school with a mature understanding of Scottish culture, literature and history and Scottish studies can play an important part in achieving that.