World events boost interest in politics and religion

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The Independent Online

At the same time, traditional languages such as French and German have shown a massive decline - so much so that they have been described as being in "free fall" by David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

German is down 7.7 per cent to 6,390 while French has fallen 4.4 per cent to 15,149. In the past 11 years, the number of students taking French at A-level has almost halved.

The rise in interest in religious studies and politics has been welcomed by examiners. They believe events like the 11 September bombings in the USA have awoken youngsters' interest in studying comparative religions.

They also believe the interest in politics stems from a desire to have a greater understanding of the way the world works - including issues such as global warming and the Iraq war.

Dr Ellie Johnson Searle, chief executive of the Joint Council for General Qualifications - the umbrella body that represents all exam boards - said: "I think these subjects have become significant because of the day and age in which we live.

"Increasingly our young people want to have an understanding of the complexities of the various faith communities and to participate in democracy."

Two options in the religious studies have been of particular interest to pupils - one in philosophy, the other in ethics.

Meanwhile, headteachers have warned that the fall in the take-up of modern languages would slide even further with the Government's decision to make the subject voluntary from the age of 14. This decision - which came into force two years ago - is expected to impact upon A-level take-up in two years' time.

"I think we are in a position where our traditional modern languages are in free-fall - and they're not being replaced by the community languages," said Mr Hart.

Admittedly, figures do show a rise in Spanish (up 4.4 per cent to 5,966) and community languages such as Chinese and Russian - singled out by Sir Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, earlier this week as the type of subjects necessary for the successful business chief of the future. Chinese take-up has increased 70 per cent in the past two years to just over 2,000. However, headteachers warned there were not enough teachers to sustain much of a further rise.

English is still the most popular subject, with 85,858 entries (one in three of all candidates) and showed an 11 per cent rise this year. Science is making a comeback with biology up 6.9 per cent to 53,968 and chemistry up five per cent to 38,851. However, physics dropped again - down two per cent to 28,119. Maths showed a slight rise of 109 entries (0.2 per cent) - 52, 897 youngsters opted to take it.

Schools Minister Andrew Adonis welcomed the rise in take-up of traditional subject options.

"Maths and English are the bedrock of our education system and the growing popularity of these subjects is equipping our school leavers with the demanded by employers and universities," he said.

However, the figures also show that media studies - often the bête noire of education traditionalists - overtook physics for the first time, rising 5.1 per cent to 28,261.

Another subject on the rise is psychology - up six per cent to 50,035. Its popularity has been put down to TV psychology dramas such as Silent Witness and Cracker.