Date posted: 07/08/2017 10 min read

There's no place like school

Inaugural Craig Norgate Memorial Scholarship winner Isaac Hughes plans to use his chartered accounting skills to help charities combat fraud.

In Brief

  • Isaac Hughes is the inaugural Craig Norgate Memorial Scholarship winner.
  • He left home to study, against the wishes of his staunchly Christian parents.
  • Hughes plans to use his CA training to fight fraud, particularly where the money is meant to help disadvantaged people.

Isaac Hughes is motivated by rags-to-riches stories and it could be said he’s starring in one. The 24 year old, who is based in Gisborne on the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island, never did achieve his dream of attending school with all the other kids. But the provisional chartered accountant, who has won a Chartered Accountants ANZ scholarship, is on track to reach his dream of becoming a CA and using his skills to help better the lives of others.

The eldest of six siblings – three boys and three girls – Hughes grew up on his family’s lifestyle block in Tokomaru Bay, which has a predominantly Māori population of around 450 people. Although Pakeha, or non-Māori, Hughes’s first language was te reo Māori. It was the main language his parents spoke to him up until he was six years old, by which time his grasp of the language outstripped that of his mother.

“My dad predominantly spoke Māori to us up until I was about 14.”

He began competing in Māori language speech competitions at age eight.

“I won a couple of the national ones which was quite cool because I’d go up on stage and everyone would just be rolling their eyes back in their heads because I was a skinny white boy,” he laughs.

Home is where the school is

Hughes’s father is a primary school teacher and former principal and his mother was a teacher before having children. They decided to home-school their children due to their religious beliefs, Hughes says, describing his parents as “quite fundamentalist” Christians. 

“I think they were just a bit worried that we’d get led astray at school.”

Photograph by Brennan Thomas

He was home-schooled when he was five and six, then he and his brother Joshua attended primary school for two years. 

“Then I started home schooling again for the rest of my life… from nine through to 18.”

He remains uncertain why his parents changed their minds about primary school and he was disappointed to leave school and his new-found friends. During his teenage years he tried – unsuccessfully – to make his parents change their minds.

“It was more high school where I was pushing quite hard to go to school, just because of the challenge of competing for marks – particularly by age 14, 15.”

RELATED: Find a scholarship

Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ) offers multiple scholarships to students committed to the CA Program.

Hughes believes his education suffered as a result of not attending school. He says he “did pretty well” with his National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) results – New Zealand’s official secondary school qualification – but would have liked to experience more competition from peers. And he says it “took a while to recover from” the social impacts of not being educated with other children.

Hughes’ mother supervised the children’s lessons when they were young, with a school room set aside at home.

In addition to school work, the Hughes children all learnt music, attending formal music lessons. Hughes began learning the piano at age five and passed his grade eight piano exam at the age of 18.

“But as we got older they got less focused on academic and more on a kind of Christian learning,” he says.

Hughes’s secondary schooling was through The Correspondence School.

“I pretty much taught myself through high school. Mum helped a little bit with Level 1 [NCEA] because she’s quite good at maths and my dad’s fluent in Māori so he helped me with my Māori studies. Other than that, it was all pretty independent learning.”

This did have its upsides, including flexible timing and the development of self-discipline.

“Especially when I got to tertiary level. A lot of students weren’t used to being independent learners, so I think I had the edge there.” 

It all added up

At age 15, encouraged by a family friend’s suggestions of accounting or economics as practical career options, Hughes began considering his future and decided to become an accountant. 

“I enjoy numbers and I enjoy the analysing side of it so I thought that would be a good track to go down.”

Not only did he enjoy studying accounting, but he achieved good grades.

Hughes’ parents were “actively against” him attending a tertiary campus, so at 18 he left home and moved in with a family friend in Gisborne to commence his Bachelor of Business degree. 

While he found the adjustment to life away from home a struggle he persevered, working part time at Coates Associates as auditor, moving to full time upon graduation. He is set to complete his chartered accountancy designation by the end of 2018 and wants to become a forensic auditor, specialising in combatting fraud in not-for-profit organisations.

“Going into not-for-profit organisations and finding fraud and prosecuting fraud has tangible effects on people. People’s money is going astray, money that’s meant to help disadvantaged people. That really gets me motivated.”

In the next few years he wants to move to Wellington and would also like to work abroad, saying if he spends all of his life in Gisborne he would feel limited in what he can offer.

“I feel like without knowledge, without money, I’m limited in my ability to help other people.”

But in the long term, Hughes sees himself back on the East Coast so he can give back to the area where he grew up.

“Chasing the money would be a bit selfish if I did it in the long term. In the short term it’s good because I can gain skills, get money, everything like that. But in the long term that’s not really what I want,” he says.

House over holidays

Hughes has always been driven, hardworking and clear about his goals. When he was just nine years old he started saving for a house after setting up a lawn mowing business with his brother. The boys bought a lawnmower and charged about NZ$8 an hour for their services. They also bought equipment for laying hens and sold fresh eggs.

Hughes credits his entrepreneurial spirit to his parents.

Photograph by Brennan Thomas

“They never gave us pocket money; any jobs we did around home were just our jobs so they always encouraged us to go and earn money and they’d both done the same growing up.” He saved all the money he made and already had the deposit for a house by the time he started full-time work. In 2015 he achieved his home ownership dream, buying a four-bedroom house in Gisborne where he lives with his fiancé. 

His best savings tip for other young people is to have a goal, work hard, and sacrifice – including sacrificing summer holidays as a student.

“That’s when you really make the money.”

Learn more to earn more

Despite his unconventional schooling, Hughes is a great believer in the power of education. 

“The biggest way to change your life is through education, both in earning capacity and the knowledge base that you gain,” he says.

“I feel like without knowledge, without money, I’m limited in my ability to help other people. That’s really what keeps me going. If I work at a minimum wage job for the rest of my life, that’s all I can really give. Whereas if I gain extra knowledge and hopefully extra money I can give it away, help other people study.” 

He urges people not to put too much emphasis on which tertiary institution they attend.

“A lot of people think they have to go away to uni, which obviously costs a lot of money and it’s a big upheaval.”

He admits he was concerned his degree, gained from the Eastern Institute of Technology, might not be perceived as having the same value as one gained from a top university. But that hasn’t been the case.

“Once you’ve got the CA, it doesn’t matter where you got your qualification from.”