Countdown star Rachel Riley spoke to PA's Lisa Salmon about balancing work and family, and how reading to her young daughters is the highlight of her day.

At the tender age of two, Rachel Riley’s youngest daughter is too young to share her maths whizz mum’s love of numbers fostered when she was a student at Southend High School for Girls.

But it’s a different story when it comes to books, and the excited youngster happily chatters about one of her favourite books, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, babbling: “Big mouthful! Yuuum!” when her laughing mum asks what the tiger does when he eats all his sandwiches.

It’s just as well the toddler is so enthusiastic about books, as her Countdown presenter mum is the new ambassador for Oscar’s Book Club and the children’s picture book award Oscar’s Book Prize, which aims to champion early-years reading.

Echo: Pasha Kovalev and Rachel Riley with their children Maven and NoaPasha Kovalev and Rachel Riley with their children Maven and Noa (Image: PA)

Rachel was raised in Thorpe Bay and studied at Thorpe Hall School before going on to receive four As at A-Level while studying at Southend High School for Girls.

“When they’re really little, aged before five, it’s the key stage for setting good habits,” explains Riley, 38.

“Reading and a love of books is beneficial, and will obviously help them with their reading confidence, getting them a head start before they go to proper school.”

Breaking off to warn: “I can hear my two-year-old coming up!”, she adds: “As a parent, reading with your children does bring you a lot of joy. I really enjoy it, it’s one of the highlights of the day when we get into bed and cuddle up together and read books. And my little one Noa just cuddles in and tells me exactly what she wants to read.”

Riley, who has daughters Noa and Maven, aged four, with husband Pasha Kovalev, who she met on Strictly Come Dancing in 2013, is on the judging panel for this year’s Oscar’s Book Prize, which is seeking the best new illustrated book for young children.

The prize was founded by the parents of Oscar Ashton, who loved storytelling but died from a heart condition at the age of three-and-a-half in 2012.

“I don’t think you can spoil a kid with enough books,” says Riley.

“I remember when I was younger, the school used to give out book tokens if you did well, and going to the bookshop and choosing one for yourself. It’s really important to get kids at a young age engaged and interested in reading, and there’s some lovely books out there.

Echo: Honour - Rachel Riley when she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire by King Charles IIIHonour - Rachel Riley when she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire by King Charles III (Image: PA)

“Reading with children is such a nice thing – it’s just family time, and it calms them.”

Riley and Kovalev read to their girls every night, and she explains: “They’re not too far apart in age, so they do enjoy some of the same books, and if we’re both at home, we can do them separately and they can get their own books, and otherwise, in one bed and reading the books together before we go to sleep. It just calms them, and Noa repeats a lot of the words – they can almost recite them off by heart, it’s really sweet.”

Such family time is a precious thing for Riley, who juggles bringing up her two daughters with travelling from her home in London to film Countdown in Manchester. Riley explains that five shows a day are filmed over three days, every couple of weeks.

“So I just go up to Manchester for a few days, and then come back down for a week or two weeks, and go up and down,” she says.

The children don’t go to Manchester with her, although they have done in the past, she explains.

“They used to because I was breastfeeding for the best part of four years – until Noa was nearly two. So all that time, they were coming up, and I could feed after work or during shows and all that kind of juggle. But Noa’s two-and-a-half now, so thankfully those days are just a memory and I can get a bit more independence back.

“It’s definitely a juggle. Pasha and I are lucky that because we’re both freelance, we can try to share, and if we have a job or a call or something, we can try to do it when the kids are at preschool or when the other one’s around.”

She says family organisation “changes all the time”, and because Noa started preschool in January, the couple have found themselves with a small window of free time during the day.

“It’s the first time in four years where we have a couple of hours to ourselves in the day, which is novel,” she reflects.

“The time just whizzes past though. It’s like any parents – everything’s a juggle and sometimes you can’t get everything done. So I’ve got a million emails stacked up, and the house is a mess most of the time – but the kids are happy. You can’t do everything, and you’ve just got to prioritise.”

Something that can help a little with the juggle sometimes, she says, are the four Ukrainian refugees the couple have staying in their home while war rages in their country. The couple have been welcoming the refugees for nearly two years.

“It’s like having an extended family in the house,” says Riley. “There’s always three women and a little boy, so there’s always extra hands with the kids, and my little girls think they’ve got a big brother – it’s actually pretty nice.”

She says having the family staying with them has been rewarding, and is particularly poignant for her because the Jewish side of her family came to England more than a century ago to flee violence in Europe.

“So we wanted to be able to help people, we had the space, and we can look back and say that we did something – we didn’t like what we saw, and we tried to help.”

Their guests speak Ukrainian and Russian, and as Kovalev is Russian, Maven and Noa are learning Russian as well as English.

“The girls get a bit of Russian speaking, so it’s all been mutually beneficial,” explains Riley.

“I think they say when you volunteer, you get more out of it yourself – and we’ve been lucky with such a lovely family.

“Obviously we all hope that they can go home and get safety, because that’s what they want to do. They’ve said we have to go and stay with them when everything’s fine, so the girls are really excited to go to Ukraine at some stage – everyone hopes that’ll be sooner rather than later.”

Rachel Riley is an ambassador for Oscar’s Book Club and the children’s picture book award Oscar’s Book Prize, which aims to encourage reading with young children.

Amazon is donating Oscar’s Book Prize shortlisted books to schools and nurseries in areas where children have less engagement with books.