Political judgement very rarely boils down to decisions between good and bad options. More commonly it is about mitigating a string of impossibly bad hands; an active choice to choose the most palatable flavour of disaster. That is certainly the position education ministers across Britain now find themselves in with the conundrum of how to award qualifications in a pandemic. And, after a failed attempt at external moderation, on Tuesday Scotland’s education secretary John Swinney took the extraordinary step of allowing all higher qualifications to stand on teacher assessment alone.

On the face of it this decision is somewhat ridiculous. The pass rate for the new teacher-assessed Scottish Highers has jumped by 14.4% from 2019. Such grade inflation potentially gives this year’s cohort a competitive edge over their exam-assessed peers.

More importantly, it also introduces significant moral hazard into the system. Teachers who were over-generous with their grading have had their cynicism rewarded. Then there is the objection – beloved of education technocrats – that moderation happens every year anyway. All that is different this year is that the inner workings of qualifications assessment are a little more transparently revealed.

Alas, while such arguments seem reasonable from the vantage point of maintaining a broadly fair system, with the keystone of procedural fairness – exams – removed, the point of qualifications, if not the entire education system, has been titled too far away from the needs of individuals. Indeed, rather than ordering society fairly, arguably the primary purpose of qualifications is to assess and reward individual effort. They may not put it in quite those terms, but rest assured this is exactly how the teenagers affected will see it.

For those downgraded, the intricacies of moderation are neither here nor there – there were no exams, the qualifications agencies may as well be moderating thin air. For those who eventually lose a place at their chosen university, meanwhile, the unfairness a downgrade produces is barely imaginable.

In England, where moderation remains the order of the day, ministers are effectively saying to pupils that their entire school career boils down to a computer crunching the numbers on somebody else’s performance. Worse still, if the Scottish experience is repeated in full, this will mostly affect high achievers from poorer backgrounds. This is not just a “sliding doors” moment for life chances either – educational judgements, as anyone who has talked to their family about the eleven-plus, can leave deep scars on character. Certainly, there is no way I could have mentally accepted this when I was eighteen.

This is the context for Swinney’s volte-face and the UK government should not rule out his moderation amnesty as the least damaging catastrophe. If the government wants to think politically however, the case seems more cut and dry. For one, the pandemic surely provides some political cover – this cohort, locked out of schooling since March, could clearly use a break. But more importantly, the alternative of cleaving to a technocratic response in the face of an incoming maelstrom violates pretty much all the unspoken rules of contemporary politics.

First, it forgets that the story always trumps the statistic: human lives are not lived in the aggregate. Second, it forgets that no matter how rational the reasons for a given policy, politics can usually overcome them. One would have thought the interminable wrangling of Brexit – where politics gave the combined forces of technocracy the ultimate bloody nose – should have drummed in this particular lesson. Yet it appears qualification wonks may soon have to be added to the ever-growing list of experts that have seen the applecart of their professional assumptions quickly overturned by raw political emotion.

To these two lessons we should probably now add a third, which you could call the “VAR paradox”. For as the hated technological referee system in football shows, people seem to prefer evidently inferior outcomes and decisions made by humans over those delivered by algorithm and technology. A world where technology-enabled decisions produce better assessments in medicine, law and education is near if indeed it is not already here. But as the instinctive preference for teacher-assessment perhaps indicates, this will sit uneasily with our notion of democratic accountability.

However, perhaps the most crucial political lesson the government should absorb is also the simplest. As Danny Finkelstein has regularly argued, when we analyse politics too often we make the “fundamental attribution error”. Or, as he puts it, when a man falls on a path, we blame the man for his clumsiness rather than explore whether the path is irredeemably slippery. Whatever else you think about the SNP, they are clearly not an ineffective political operation. That they were buffeted by the same political storm before eventually caving should therefore give the government pause for thought.

With GCSEs due next week, do not be surprised if the British government also takes the Scottish route.

The author is a former Labour adviser on education.