Chetham's educates students between the ages of 8 and 18, all of whom enter the School via musical audition only. Students receive a full academic education following the UK National Curriculum, alongside specialist group and individual music tuition. Although there is no academic criteria for acceptance, the school regularly obtains good exam results in both music and academic subjects. Almost all western instruments may be studied, including singing in the Sixth Form only or as a chorister at Manchester Cathedral.
Chetham's offers a year-round programme of concerts within the School grounds, in venues within Manchester including Manchester Cathedral, the Royal Northern College of Music, Band on the Wall, Bridgewater Hall and further afield. Regular recitals take place in churches and community spaces across Greater Manchester, and occasionally in London, at major festivals and internationally. Its senior ensembles include Chetham's Symphony Orchestra and Big Band, alongside many individual students, have won awards for their music, and many alumni have progressed to highly successful careers as professional musicians or in other sectors.
The music school was established in 1969 from Chetham's Hospital School, founded as a charity school by Humphrey Chetham in 1653. After becoming a boys' grammar school in 1952, the school turned to music as its speciality, at the same time becoming an independent school and accepting its first female students. There are approximately 300 students on roll, including a large sixth form making up around half of the school. Approximately two thirds of students board on site, with others travelling in as day students from around Greater Manchester.
The oldest parts of the school date to the 1420s, when the building was constructed as a residence for priests of the church which is now Manchester Cathedral. These parts are listed buildings housing Chetham's Library, the oldest free public reference library in the English speaking world. Academic and music teaching moved into a new, purpose-designed building in 2012; this replaced the Victorian Palatine building and allowed easier access for concert visitors. Boarding and other facilities, including the dining room and Whiteley Hall, the main performance space until 2017, are in the former Manchester Grammar School building on Long Millgate, which was acquired in 1969 with the establishment of the music school.
A 482-seat concert hall, The Stoller Hall, was opened within the new school building in April 2017 as a home for both school and professional music and other genres of performance. The school is a registered charity under English law, and is governed by a board of School Governors. A separate board of Feoffees oversee the development of the entire site including Chetham's Library, under the terms of Humphrey Chetham's will of 1653.
In February 2013, the school's former Director of Music Michael Brewer was convicted of having indecently assaulted a pupil, Frances Andrade, who committed suicide during his trial. Investigations by the Greater Manchester Police began into allegations against others associated with the school and its partner music institutions in the past. An Independent Schools Inspectorate report published in 2014 praised the school's current leadership, including its safeguarding provisions.