The purpose of this study was to compare the efficacy of thoracoscopic drainage with open drainage of empyema in children. A retrospective case history audit was done of children presenting to a single major paediatric centre who underwent thoracoscopy drainage and decortication or open decortication and drainage (thoracotomy) between January 2000 and September 2002. Time to resolution of infection, duration of intercostal catheter (ICC) drainage, postoperative morphine requirements, and length of hospital admission were compared as primary measures of outcome. Thirty-three patients, 17 male and 16 female, aged between 1 month and 21 years were included in the study. Median age at surgery was 2.6 years. The location of the empyema was right-sided in 17 patients and left-sided in 16 patients. The empyema was drained by thoracoscopy in 11 patients, and 22 patients underwent thoracotomy. Two patients had thoracoscopy converted to thoracotomy for late-stage disease requiring greater surgical access. There were no differences between treatment groups with respect to duration of ICC drainage (p=0.6), duration of fever (p=0.6), length of stay (p=0.9), or postoperative morphine use (p=0.2). However, overall pain scores were lower in the thoracoscopy group, particularly on days 2 and 3; this approached statistical significance (p=0.07). This study has demonstrated that thoracoscopic drainage is an effective procedure for treating empyema in children. It is less invasive than open thoracotomy and is associated with less patient discomfort and less severe pain as measured by objective pain scores. We advocate thoracoscopic drainage for the majority of patients with empyema, except for those with advanced disease.