Critical thinking has shot up by almost 60% in popularity as an A-level subject in the past year, results from the Joint Council for Qualifications show.
Learning to evaluate is a valuable skill, exam boards say
The number of people who studied it was relatively tiny - just 2,008 out of about 310,000 candidates.
But the new subject had easily the biggest percentage increase from 2006.
Ministers and exam board officials were buoyed by the resurgence of further mathematics, the second biggest riser, up 8.3% at 7,872 entries.
Mathematics was also up, 7.3%, at more than 60,000 entries, putting it firmly in second place in the "top 10", behind English and supplanting general studies.
TOP 10 A-LEVEL SUBJECT ENTRIES
Rank 2007 (2006) Subject, % of total entries
1 (1) English, 10.6%
2 (3) Mathematics, 7.5%
3 (2) General Studies, 6.9%
4 (4) Biology, 6.8%
5 (5) Psychology, 6.5%
6 (6) History, 5.8%
7 (7) Art & design, 5.3%
8 (8) Chemistry, 5%
9 (10) Media studies, 4%
10 (9) Geography, 3.9%
At a joint council news conference, Greg Watson of the OCR exam board said critical thinking encapsulated the sort of skills that were in demand by universities and by employers.
For example, anyone working in science would benefit from being able to evaluate the arguments for and against the MMR vaccine, he said.
"Schools say it also provides very good support for the other A-levels their students are doing."
The Schools Minister, Jim Knight, said: "It is encouraging that the numbers of students taking mathematics, modern languages and science subjects are on the rise - in the case of mathematics, there has been a 14% rise in uptake since 2004.
"We recognise their crucial importance to the UK economy and want to accelerate this trend over the coming years."
But the think tank Reform said that on a longer view, since 2000, entries in such key subjects were mostly down - maths by 10% and physics by 14%, for example.
And David Brown of the Institution of Chemical Engineers said the results were encourgaing but masked the growing skills crisis facing science and technology in the UK.
"We are confronted by a major shortage of talented scientists and engineers," he said.
Computing and sciences
Mike Cresswell of the AQA board pointed out the steady decline of geography in recent years.
Although still in the top 10 - just - it has been overtaken by media, film and TV studies.
Computing and ICT were also down, by 10% and 6%.
But Dr Cresswell pointed out that some 16,000 candidates had opted to take the new Applied A-level in ICT, so overall "those important skills" were still in the top 10 of all A-levels.
He also highlighted the way the numbers taking chemistry and physics had risen slightly, albeit with a decline of a similar amount (300) in biology.
Subjects classed as "other sciences", such as electronics, had been taken by 300 more candidates so there was "some cause for reasonable optimism" on the stability of science.
In languages, French entries were down by 200 but German was up 100 and Spanish up 400.
Officials also pointed to "a clear upwards five-year trend" in the group of "other languages" which includes economically important subjects such as Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Russian and Polish.
The heads of the main exam boards said the A-level remained "an immensely strong brand".
Mindful of competitors such as the new Pre-U, Jerry Jarvis of Edexcel told journalists: "Any new qualification coming along has all the usual, if you like, barriers to entry.
"My own view is that part of the advantage that we have in this country is that we constantly evaluate and challenge the qualifications that are in the market place.
"We should be providing the qualifications that people need. I think it's a really good thing that A-levels continue to be challenged by other types of qualification."
New, more challenging A-level questions are being introduced next year to tackle the problem universities have in discriminating between the best candidates.
These will have a new top grade, A*, to be awarded for the first time in 2010.
Mike Cresswell said this was "an eminently sensible response to a problem of success".
He rejected the idea that in a subject like maths - in which almost 44% already get A grades - there would inevitably be a need for an even higher, A** grade.
It was up to the exam boards to ensure that the standard was maintained through the change, he added.
Greg Watson of OCR said: "We are also very conscious that although we think of it as a major route into the universities, which it is, it is also a major route into employment."
Employers needed to know what they were getting and not have to look up a chart to see what year of A-level someone had.
As a further discriminator, universities are being provided for the first time with students' unit grades, not just overall subject grades.
He also said he did not see the new Applied A-levels as being in competition with the Diploma that students will begin studying from next year.
"As schools and colleges roll it out they will discover the sort of students it is best suited to," Mr Watson said.
"I see it as an addition to the menu at this stage rather than taking pork off and putting beef on."