The Swedish education system has undergone an extensive transformation and a new policy context characterised by external control, marketing and managerial accountability is now in place. In previous research, the new context has been presented as something school leaders have to balance against democratic professionalism but eventually give way to. This article intends to make this picture more nuanced by exploring how school leaders make sense of and respond to external demands related to the new policy context. The article takes institutional theory and the concept of coupling – the relationship between the environment of schooling and the participants and practices in local school organisations – as its theoretical starting point. Findings from three compulsory schools show that school leaders make symbolic responses to external demands but also transform these demands to make them fit with norms and values that prevail in their local organisations, thereby preventing neoliberal influences from gaining ascendancy. Substantial changes in practice due to altered understanding were also detected. However, ideas about professional accountability and democratic values still remain the guiding principles and few indications of managerial accountability can be detected.