IS it ever all right to lie? asks Ella, 11.
"Like, to your friends? I think it can be if you're doing it for the right reasons."
The children of Merewether Public School's year 5 and 6 ethics class have slid their plastic chairs into a circle in the library. The bell is about to ring for sport, but they want to stay. Some are on the edge of their seats.
Lying might be all right, adds Max, 12, to spare someone's feelings. Sakeel, 11, says he once coaxed a kid down from a wall with the promise of lollies. Except he had no lollies. The class nods, knowingly.
Then it's my turn to wonder about lying.
Richard Hartley, the school principal, who bellows playfully at the kids - "come on, I'll take ya" - and gets husky about how terrific they are, has sworn me not to ask the kids about scripture. They would be in scripture now, or non-scripture, if this was before 2011 and they weren't in ethics. It's a tense topic and the kids, with whom I've been granted a privileged audience, bring it up. Am I meant to shut it down?
"We do ethics because we don't believe in God, and because we want to learn," says one girl.
This isn't strictly true. A boy from a Muslim background says he didn't go to scripture because it didn't teach his religion. A couple of girls say it's not about God, exactly, though maybe it is. They murmur like this and point and counterpoint fill the library.
(I later learn that they were asked not to bring up scripture, either).
It's as if the kids sense the invisible netting of conflict, a war that's been fought and they're on the right side of. Or maybe it's just that they used to do scripture, and now they don't.
The bell rings.
THE class talk about things like lying and punishment and moral responsibility for half an hour each week with Mr Eardley, their tall, gangly ethics teacher. By day he's Craig Eardley, communications and media consultant. His daughter goes to the school.
"She chose to do scripture," he says. "It was her decision."
It's another week, and Eardley has just wrapped up a lesson where the class voted, hypothetically, on whether to keep the school uniform. They argued the pros and cons. Most came down on the side of the uniform.
"In week one we laid some ground rules; you respect people's opinions, when a person is talking you don't laugh or judge, and what's said in class stays in class," he says. "I'm blown away by the answers they give."
In this lesson, Eardley challenged his students to "defeat my argument". It was absorbing. The only disruption - apart from a boy who went on tangents like Ross Noble - was from kids calling out, and the odd report from the playground.
"We don't localise examples, in here."
All ethics teachers in NSW are volunteers who teach from a curriculum - designed by the academic Sue Knight - and only the curriculum. No rants about gay rights or guns or 9/11.
The 78 topics have titles like "Teasing", "Drugs in sport" and "Human rights - do other animals have them?". Eardley just taught "Voting - an ethical issue?"
Teachers have to undergo the usual checks, and two days of training, and be able to commit an hour a week to preparing for class. Most are recruited by ethics co-ordinators, who are trained by Primary Ethics.
SAYS Teresa Russell, rather tersely: "If you look up the word 'secular' there's nothing in there about God."
Russell is chief executive of Primary Ethics, the company set up by the St James Ethics Centre and contracted by the NSW government to run classes in primary schools.
I find it odd that I'm being told what "secular" means. But this is something she's wary, and weary, of talking about.
"We have a good emphasis on keeping opinion out of the classroom."
That's true, says Eardley, brandishing a copy of the curriculum. The point, he says, is to get children thinking critically, not recruit them to an ideological team.
Ethics teachers tend to be parents and grandparents, but not always. There are academics and lawyers and engineers. John Ure, an ethics teacher at Eleebana Public School, is a decorated former policeman.
"I've got a tremendous bunch," he says, on his way to class.
"Kids these days are just so aware of what's happening in the world."
Technically, Department of Education-employed teachers can't teach ethics. Nor can principals. But, says a man in the know, it happens. He knows a Hunter principal who, frustrated by a lack of volunteers, quietly taught the classes himself.
He's heard of principals asking long-term casuals to teach ethics, dangling the lure of a full-time position.
"It's a lot easier for schools just to run scripture," says Man In The Know.
"For some it's a philosophical thing, but there are extra staffing pressures with ethics classes running at the same time as scripture."
SCHOOLS run ethics at the same time as scripture, as they are legislated to do. At Newcastle East Public School, scripture is coming off second best.
"We have good scripture teachers," says principal John Beach.
"But we have trouble staffing scripture classes. Year 3 didn't have a teacher for most of last year."
Before ethics, kids ruled out of scripture would, for the hour, take part in supervised activities that "neither compete with [scripture], nor are they lessons in the curriculum".
Russell remembers her daughter complaining about the overload of colouring in.
"It was a complete joke," agrees Beach. He has a masters in philosophy. Peeking out from a shelf in his office is a copy of de Bono's Super Mind Pack.
"Our business is meant to be teaching the kids meaningful things."
If you tried to picture a place where ethics might flourish, it would look like Newcastle East; leafy, wealthy, parents who are young professionals. When the school ran a survey on ethics, 87 per cent of parents were interested.
But the school's roster of teachers - "about half of them parents, half from outside of the school" - groans beneath the 150 students enrolled in ethics. Seventy students do scripture.
"One of the things holding ethics back is that you can't get enough teachers for it," says Beach.
"That is the case in every school."
Russell is forever appealing for volunteers, and Beach knows Hunter principals who are getting desperate. He hasn't seen principals or casuals moonlighting. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen.
"It certainly doesn't happen here."
Also undermining ethics is the "don't ask, don't get" manner in which parents are told about it.
In a leaked memo last December, an education official told principals not to give details about ethics or offer it unless parents had first taken their children out of scripture.
A department spokesman confirmed the policy to the Herald's Joanne McCarthy. Indeed, scripture-as-default kicks in if a parent forgets to fill out a form.
"Please note that if the note is not returned your child will automatically be enrolled into the Scripture program," reads the form at Mayfield East.
The murkiness creates an information vacuum for parents and staff. Parents at Adamstown Public School, for instance, were told in a newsletter, wrongly, that "all children are expected to attend scripture".
The situation is ripe for opportunists, says Greens education spokesman John Kaye. The lack of transparency for parents is a subtle blow in the war over ethics.
"Some parents aren't even being told that the classes exist," says Kaye.
He blames Fred Nile.
WHEN the Rees Labor government trialled ethics in 2010, the Anglican Church reported that scripture in the 10 sample schools had been "decimated".
A website run by Youthworks, a scripture provider, said the trials meant "to not only remove Jesus Christ from the state school system, but from the consciousness and hearts of the next generation".
But after vowing to scrap ethics if elected, the O'Farrell Coalition government changed its mind. The classes were already legislated, Education Minister Adrian Piccoli told Fairfax.
"The battle over ethics classes is finished and we will be part of it."
The battle wasn't finished for Fred Nile, who invoked the Nazis.
"It's relative ethics, which is the basis of secular humanism," Nile told NSW Parliament.
"Situation ethics, as I see it, was followed by other regimes such as the Nazis and communists."
The Christian Democratic leader - whose crossbench support is crucial to the government - introduced a bill to abolish ethics, saying that with only 2700 students enrolled in classes (at the time), it was a failure. His bill was defeated.
Today, it would be hard to brand ethics a failure. About 20,000 students take part, in 300 schools.
In the Hunter, 36 schools have ethics co-ordinators and there are three times that many ethics teachers. More than 1800 Hunter kids do ethics.
The number of volunteers isn't keeping pace with the number of kids enrolled. Ethics can't keep up with its own popularity. The war is over, but the supply lines are critical.
"Ethics is here to stay," says John Kaye.
"But there's still a form of guerilla warfare being fought by the anti-ethics brigade, and by Fred Nile."
The scripture-as-default enrolment forms are a micro victory for Nile, and his party continues to chip away. Adrian van der Byl, a Nile candidate, told a Goulburn audience last month that ethics is one way the government undermines values and the economy. Another is "sodomy".
Word is well and truly out about ethics, concedes Kaye.
But a parent enrolling a child in school deserves to hear their options from the outset, he says, not after they've ruled out scripture.
"I think we'll win this war in the end," Kaye says. "The more people see ethics in action, the more support it gets."
ONE night in 2010, Bobbie Antonic breathed in and prepared for battle.
The mother-of-three had been steeling herself to make the case for ethics to a Medowie Public School P&C meeting. She was optimistic, and nervous. Medowie is the place, after all, where a Christian school banned Harry Potter.
But the backlash never came. Medowie now has a flourishing ethics program with Antonic, a skate shop owner and prolific tweeter, at the helm.
She makes two points. One: ethics needs to be driven by a school's parent community. Two: not everyone in the faith community is Fred Nile.
"I have friends who are very religious, and we're still friends," she says.
"It's OK to debate."
SHERIE Donoghoe has seen the change in Lily, her youngest.
Lily is in the class at Merewether Public. Her older sister did ethics, but the lack of a teacher (before Mr Eardley) meant there was no class for Lily. So she went to scripture.
"At the end of scripture they would get a lollipop," says Donoghoe. "Some kids would go just for that. I think now that she's done ethics, she sees it as bribery."
The Donoghoe dinner table is now a place for discussion of right and wrong and the rail debate. Sherie thinks the lesson on voting helped Lily understand the state election.
She has reservations about what is taught in scripture ("the teachers' beliefs can be so strong"). One principal wryly recalls the day a child was traumatised by a description of Hell. The parents weren't impressed.
Still, Donoghoe can see the value in both ethics and scripture.
"I think it's wrong that the classes are on at the same time," she says.
"Why not give them the option?"
Beach, the Newcastle East principal with the masters in philosophy, agrees. The scheduling clash is something parents bring up, a lot.
Charles, 11, in Mr Eardley's class, doesn't mind. This is his last year of primary school, and this is his favourite class.
"You don't feel embarrassed here," he says.
"It's an open discussion."