Corticosteroids are an essential component of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). Prednisolone is the most commonly used steroid, particularly in the maintenance phase of therapy. There is increasing evidence that, even in equipotent dosage for glucocorticoid effect, dexamethasone has enhanced lymphoblast cytotoxicity and penetration of the central nervous system (CNS) compared with prednisolone. Substitution of dexamethasone for prednisolone in the treatment of ALL might, therefore, result in improved event-free and overall survival. Children with newly diagnosed ALL were randomly assigned to receive either dexamethasone or prednisolone in the induction, consolidation (all received dexamethasone in intensification) and continuation phases of treatment. Among 1603 eligible randomized patients, those receiving dexamethasone had half the risk of isolated CNS relapse (P = 0.0007). Event-free survival was significantly improved with dexamethasone (84.2% vs. 75.6% at 5 years; P = 0.01), with no evidence of differing effects in any subgroup of patients. The use of 6.5 mg/m(2) dexamethasone throughout treatment for ALL led to a significant decrease in the risk of relapse for all risk-groups of patients and, despite the increased toxicity, should now be regarded as part of standard therapy for childhood ALL.