His view, revealed at a London conference on vocational pathways organised by the Royal Society of Arts, is likely to upset many schools.
Strong supporters of vocational education argue that all schools must teach alternatives to GCSEs to avoid accusations that some schools were teaching "sheep" and others "goats". Vocational qualifications will never achieve parity of esteem with GCSEs unless they become universal, they say.
Dr Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, said: "Some schools will choose not to offer vocational courses pre-16. In some cases I can see this would be a perfectly sensible choice.
"Even more schools will choose to keep vocational courses as an optional, rather than compulsory, element within the key stage 4 curriculum . . . Again, that would be a perfectly sensible choice."
Dr Tate congratulated the RSA on organising a 14-16 conference which "eschews the political correctness which claims we must only think in terms of a seamless 14-19 continuum". However, he did go on to say that for most schools and for many pupils vocational courses were likely to provide a useful optional contribution to the broad and balanced curriculum.
His comments worried many of the heads and teachers at the conference. One of the delegates, Gerry Wilson, chair of the curriculum and assessment committee for the National Association of Head Teachers and head of John Hanson School in Andover, Hampshire, said: "He and Chris Woodhead (the chief inspector who also spoke) were really saying: 'If you've got a bright A-level kid, they don't have to go down that road, do they?'" Mr Wilson accused both men of being "pejorative" about teachers trying to widen the debate on the 16-19 curriculum.
Major changes to simplify the assessment and recording of GNVQs, making them more manageable, were announced by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications this week.