A good conductor:
- Provides musical leadership
- Unifies the ensemble in the musical moment
- Decides on the how of music that cannot be communicated in the score
- Communicates to the ensemble non-verbally
At the top level of your question, indeed, there exist ensembles that perform without a conductor. These ensembles are often heavily rehearsed, and quite often the musical leadership (that is, who decides what to rehearse when) comes from a senior member of the ensemble. (Traditionally, the first violin/concertmaster.1) However, once this is rehearsed, it is pretty much set in stone, and there is very little a large conductorless ensemble can change in the middle of a performance.
But keep in mind, high-level performing ensembles often do not have copious rehearsal time! Usually, just one session, and not uncommonly zero, before a performance. In these situations it is imperative to have someone at the front who will unify all of the different musicians' interpretations of the piece in question.
Furthermore, the music in the moment of performance will often require something different than what is rehearsed. The tempos might be a little bit faster, or the brass might give a bit more (or god forbid someone makes a mistake), and the conductor is there to take all of this information and synthesize it into the ensemble's performance.
The simple fact that the same orchestra will sound different with a different conductor should be proof enough of this.
The conductor is constantly asking himself "What information does the ensemble need from me?", answers that question using his ears and his internal aural image of what the music should sound like, and then executes a gesture to communicate this information nonverbally. At high levels of ensemble musicianship, the conductor may not even need to move his hands, if the music doesn't require it! See this video of Leonard Bernstein, but do realize that he is communicating and influencing the ensemble even without his hands!
Of course, at lower levels of musicianship, like in a middle school, the players are likely going to need very specific beat patterns to play together, even after copious amounts of rehearsal.
1 Even in professional orchestras, it is still this first violin who makes many of the ensemble decisions like, "where, really, is our first downbeat." Many famous orchestra conductors are notorious for being very nonspecific with their opening gestures, and were the cameras trained a little down and to the left, you'd see the real preparatory gesture.