This paper analyses, from the perspective of the political sociology of policy instruments, the adoption and re-contextualisation of School Autonomy with Accountability (SAWA) reforms in Spain, with a particular focus on the region of Madrid. Over the last few decades, Madrid has adopted a wide range of education policies that have contributed to consolidate a market-oriented approach in the governance of the educational system. This paper analyses the instrumentation and complex interaction between standardised tests, test-based accountability, school choice and school autonomy in advancing this governance shift. The main objective of the paper is twofold: first, to trace the policy trajectory of SAWA reforms in Spain and Madrid, and second, to identify the rationale of the reform and its related policy ontology in relation to the selection and articulation of different policy instruments as well as the governance implications of these choices. Methodologically, we have conducted a policy analysis case study, analysing data from a set of 35 original interviews with education policymakers and key policy actors, combined with document analysis. The results of our research show how the policy preferences of domestic political actors and the legacies of the politico-administrative regimes mediate the final form and uses of the SAWA policy instruments. These policy instruments can be conceptualised as ‘life objects’ whose development and uses are attached to context specific – and sometimes contradictory – political objectives and rationales.