A high-profile admission last July that the proportion of fifth-year pupils taking a modern language had declined from 36 per cent in 1975 to 12 per cent in 1996 led Brian Wilson, the then Education Minister, to order an inquiry. Mr Wilson said later that the finding had been one of his most disappointing discoveries since taking office.
But the figures were based on the fifth year in each case and, crucially, did not take account of the massive increase in the staying-on rate during the period from 33 per cent to 64 per cent.
Colin MacLean, chief statistician at the Scottish Office, has now provided alternative figures based on the fourth-year cohort, which is not affected by changes in the leaver population. These still record a decline in the uptake of modern languages - but only from 12.5 per cent in 1976 to 8.1 per cent in 1998.
Judith Gillespie, development manager with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, who has been in correspondence on the issue with Mr MacLean, says this represents a more stable picture rather than one of dramatic decline.
Mrs Gillespie said the Scottish Office statistics ignored improvements and offered a consistently negative view of education. "No wonder ministers spend their time attacking teachers," she said.
Mr MacLean suggested that "one interpretation is that the uptake of French has fallen in the face of strong competition from new subjects".
The Scottish Office figures showed that French was the fifth most popular Higher subject in 1976, falling to tenth in 1996. Biology had gone from eighth to fifth, while computing, secretarial studies, management and information and physical education did not exist as Highers in 1976.