Despite a significant overall fall-off over the past 30 years, more than 171,000 GCSE students are opening envelopes to reveal their grades in Religious Education today, an increase of 7.2 per cent in those taking the full course since 2006.
The future of RE - which is about equipping children to understand the complex world of religion and belief, rather than inculcating a particular outlook - has been questioned in many quarters in recent years.
Faith shows little sign of waning on a global scale, though the historic religion of Europe has declined dramatically and new kinds of spirituality and secularity are emerging fast.
Educationalists believe that this is a vital area of learning in school and society. But RE in publicly-funded schools remains constrained by the requirement in the 1944 Education Act that it be mainly Christian in character - something which many schools and advisory councils in the subject try to work around.
The course’s relative popularity means that the subject has held its position at the top of the chart of increases in entries (for full courses with over 100,000 entrants), say supporters.
It is also the number one short course option, with 56 per cent of those students taking short courses opting to take Religious Education as one of their subject choices.
This week's results show that 7.8 per cent more students took the GCSE short course in Religious Education this year than last, representing an extra 21,240 students and taking the total to 292,491. The full course, usually studied over two years, was taken by an extra 11,442 students.
Nick McKemey, Head of School Improvement for the Church of England, commented: “This further increase, building on the 7.5 per cent rise last year, is evidence that more young people are fascinated by what they and others believe and how that affects their day-to-day lives. Ofsted have recently reported that RE contributes significantly to both academic achievement and personal development. While RE may have in the past been seen as an unusual option, this uptake suggests that students from all kinds of backgrounds are keen to engage with issues of community cohesion, diversity and religious understanding.”
Mr McKemey argues that the popularity of the subject adds weight to calls for RE to be fully integrated into the National Curriculum up to the age of 14: “Religious Education should not only be given due prominence in the compulsory element of all students’ time in school, as the Government has recognised, but it is becoming increasingly clear that a nationally agreed syllabus would help further improve standards and foster stronger community cohesion.”