Philanthropists should be asked to bankroll state boarding schools specialising in everything from immersive language teaching to maths and science, according to a report commissioned by the Scottish government.
The selective schools would offer study programmes for "very able" students, and build on the success of the six existing state schools in Scotland that already specialise in music, dance or sport. The report, Outstanding Students and Philanthropic Contributions in Scottish School Education, finds that the gradual development of other schools with other specialisms could be "consistent with Scottish comprehensive principles".
Michael Russell, education secretary, said the report - published by the David Hume Institute - provided "some vital insights" into "leveraging philanthropic contributions and interventions". But some educationalists have raised concerns that the idea could lead to inequality in Scottish education.
Languages would be the easiest subject area to build a specialist school around, said Lindsay Paterson, professor of education at the University of Edinburgh and the report's author. Schools would select children on the basis of "strong linguistic potential".
Teaching would be almost exclusively in the chosen language from an early age, with English introduced only halfway through primary school. The immersive approach would continue through secondary schooling, and boarding - as already practised at specialist schools in Scotland - would mean that students were exposed to languages for more hours of the day.
Once language schools were established, schools of science, maths, drama and visual arts could be introduced.
Professor Paterson proposes that, failing the development of entirely new specialist schools, more programmes such as summer schools or national competitions should be created for young people with outstanding ability.
"A strength of Scottish school education is its homogeneity, but also its main weakness," the report says. It finds that selection, through new schools or programmes within existing schools, could "gradually change the culture of Scottish education", helping it to champion high-flyers.
Funding for the schools would depend on philanthropic contributions. Jim McColl, one of Scotland's richest businessmen, backed the idea by appearing at the report's official launch, although most philanthropists would probably seek little more than kudos for their contribution, the report says.
Donors of large sums would be expected to want to choose where their money goes. Smaller sums could go into a National Lottery-style pot that would be opened up to "competitive bids from the organisers of schemes for talented or gifted students".
Margaret Sutherland, director of the University of Glasgow-based Scottish Network for Able Pupils, said that Professor Paterson's ideas "were worth exploring" but must not depart from Scottish principles of social justice and equity.
Selection-based education programmes in the US and, to a lesser extent, England, had shown under-representation of ethnic and other minority groups, she said, and "that does not dovetail with Scotland".
Sarah Breslin, director of SCILT, Scotland's national centre for languages, said the prospect of specialist language schools was appealing, but added that the time was not right for them and it could distract from the national 1+2 policy that promoted language learning in all schools.