Boom in religious studies in the wake of September 11

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Record numbers of sixth-formers sat A-levels in religious studies this summer, according to official statistics published yesterday.

Record numbers of sixth-formers sat A-levels in religious studies this summer, according to official statistics published yesterday.

The dramatic rise was attributed to teenagers' desire to understand world religions in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks and the Iraq war, according to headteachers and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exam regulator.

The students who will receive their A-level results today were the first to choose their courses after the 11 September terrorist attacks in 2001.

Religious studies A-level showed the biggest percentage increase in candidates of any subject this summer. Nearly 14,500 students sat the exam this summer, up from 12,671 last year, a rise of 13.8 per cent.

A spokesman for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority attributed the increase to interest in world affairs following the 11 September attacks.

"Obviously, religion is playing an increased role in world affairs and I think students are choosing to take religious studies because they see that it will give them a greater understanding of the world we live in."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said international Islamic terrorism and the Iraq war were likely to be fuelling students' hunger for knowledge about world religions. "I think they are genuinely concerned about stability in the world."

He said the increase in the number of religious studies A-level candidates probably did not mean students were becoming "more religious".

"It may well reflect a genuine interest in world religion and studying why these conflicts seem to have their roots in religious tension," he said.

However, the number of students choosing to study foreign languages fell sharply this year as fewer sixth-formers opted for French and German.

The sudden decline sparked fears that Britain's image as a country with no interest in learning foreign languages would only get worse.

The proportion of students taking German was down by 8.1 per cent on last year, while French was down by 2.5 per cent.

Meanwhile, there was another rise in popularity of subjectsoften dismissed as "soft", including media, film and TV studies, sociology and psychology.

However, maths entries rose by 4.3 per cent and further maths increased by 7.6 per cent.

But computing, information technology and business studies fell in popularity. The most dramatic decline was in computing, with a 16.3 per cent decrease in candidates taking the exams. The proportion of students taking A-levels in information and communication technology also dropped sharply - by 10.7 per cent.

Interest in science subjects fell by 6.5 per cent and the proportion of candidates taking physics on its own dropped by 6.2 per cent.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warn-ed that unless urgent action was taken, physics A-level could disappear. "Over the past five years, the number of students taking the subject at A-level has dropped by 5,200," she said. "If this rate continues, will physics become the next Latin and disappear altogether?"

Mr Hart said he was "very worried" about the decline in language students. "I think it does demonstrate that it was a mistake of the Government to make modern languages optional at Key Stage 4 (GCSE).

"We are now seeing quite a massive decline in interest for modern languages," he said.

"That is only going to reinforce the view that the Brits aren't really interested in speaking modern languages."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "The rise in the number of students taking mathematics and further mathematics at A-level is very welcome, although the number taking mathematics at AS has fallen. The continuing decrease in physics at A-level and modern foreign languages at A and AS remains a cause for concern."